I sat in a client’s office a couple of years ago when the client told me he didn’t like my second Maxim (click on the link here to see the full list): Seek Balance in Life. He said that in his experience, people use the concept of balance to not work as hard as they ought to, or might, or should. There is a strong sense in the corporate and government worlds that those who see balance are “wussies” that don’t pull their weight. Let me be specific: there are times when an employee must work overtime for long periods to pull his or her weight for the good of the organization. There are certain years of your career where you ought to work more. But you do not live for long work hours. We are not created or evolved to lose our humanity through soul-crushing non-stop work.
I’ve been re-reading Josepf Pieper’s truly seminal Leisure: The Basis of Culture and then yesterday I came across a piece in The Atlantic that really pushed me to write about this sense of working harder and longer to be happier.
Pieper, in a series of lectures after World War II, challenged listeners and readers to reconsider their role in a system which leads to a slave society, and that it is through leisure that we have culture. We have all seen the Dilbert cartoons and ESPN commercials where the office culture is called soul-crushing. Most of us have actually lived that life. But those words are not trite. They are not a joke.
The maintenance of a certain type of corporate culture requires what Pieper referred to as the “impoverishment of the individual.” He said that “the ‘total work’ State needs the spiritual impoverished, one-track mind of the functionary; and he in turn, is naturally inclined to find complete satisfaction in his ‘service’ and thereby achieves the illusion of a life fulfilled, which he acknowledges and willingly accepts.”
The corporate world feeds off those who find their greatest satisfaction in work. And empirical studies with real evidence show that people are not actually satisfied with giving their lives for work, even when it makes them more money. Pieper makes clear that we cannot listen, learn and appreciate the world around us and each other if we are so busy that we cannot hear, cannot think, and don’t have time to read.
But it isn’t just an old, dead German academic who waxes philosophical on work and leisure. Social scientists seeking evidence find what Pieper claimed. Jonathan Rose, writing in the Atlantic, challenges a central belief in social sciences, namely, that well-being increases with economic expansion. But why does the US find itself at 26th of 29 advanced countries when measuring child well-being? Why, in the middle of strong national economic growth, people are self-reporting that they are not happier? And lets not get into a discussion about methodology of studies, especially when few (I’d argue virtually none of us) know about the study in detail. This is about generalizations of happiness and well-being.
Everyone can understand the crushing effects poverty has on well-being and happiness. And it is natural that people expect that increased income and prosperity will increase well-being and happiness. Social science consistently shows that it does, but only up to a certain level. That level seems to be $75, 000 a year. (Look up Easterlin Paradox and the arguments surrounding it) Increased wealth does, in fact, lead to increased happiness up to $75,000. After that, it doesn’t seem to matter. More wealth doesn’t push the mean level of happiness to the right.
That would seem to mean that to be happy, and feel a strong measure of well-being, we must seek out other activities besides working longer hours and making more money. That takes us back to Pieper, and sound leadership principles. Pieper tells us that “the world of work is becoming our entire world; it threatens to engulf us completely, and the demand of the world of work become greater and greater, till at last they make a ‘total’ claim upon the whole of human nature.”
As a leader, you must carefully consider how you develop and maintain a culture within your organization with respect to the work-life balance. There comes a point of diminishing return on your peoples’ performance when you push them to work beyond their ability to rejuvenate. I once took over an organization with high visibility and responsibility where, on the first day, my support staff handed me a Blackberry to stay in contact with my superiors. I handed it back. They were stunned. My senior boss had my phone number and could call me any time. He never did after work hours.
The expectation has become that we are always on. Everyone is expected to answer a text in the middle of the night. The fact that bosses text their subordinates in the middle of the night and the fact that subordinates swiftly roll over and answer them shows how far down the road to crushing humanity we are.
I recommend to my mentorees that when they consider jobs, they should seek out more than a particular salary. They should seek out the boss that they want to work for. They should seek out the intangibles (intangible because they can’t be measured monetarily) in addition to salary. I’ve told multiple employees over the years that I didn’t have the authority to give them a raise, but that I hope that the respect and thanks I’m giving them, along with some time off, can help them increase their well-being. I think it does.
There’s nothing manly or tough, in my book, about how many hours a person puts in every day. Those that boast of 70 hour weeks are not making themselves more appealing to hiring authorities. I’m not blind to the logic that says you have to work to keep your job and lacking that work ethic will make you lose your job and then not be happy. But at some point, willingness to put your family and leisure life on the back burner to further a corporate entity that sees you as fuel for powering its own ends, not your well-being, leads nowhere good.
Few people ever reach that highest office where they will make all the corporate decisions and money attendant with it. Most of us top out at some point and when we leave, that corporate structure quickly fills your spot with someone else. This is precisely why so many people fall into depression after retirement and can’t transition from working themselves to exhaustion to a life of leisure. They have never developed a taste for leisure in their work lives. This is why so many relationships fall apart after so many years together when one transitions to a new job or retirement. People have to actually fill the time they once gave to work and never developed common interests with their partner or learned to actually carry on a conversation.
So work hard. But practice your leisure as well. Add to culture. If you’re a boss, realize that at some point, your people can’t give you more productivity until they are recharged. I’d really avoid hiring the star performer that promises to work day and night. That person poisons organizations more often than not.
Create an environment that adds to peoples’ humanity, not that saps it. Its hard. You have to work at it. Its worth it. Makes your organization stronger. Increases culture. That’s good.
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