The Importance of Work

I had a long career in management becoming a power station manager at the ripe old age of twenty-six! Despite having degrees in engineering and economics, I became a manager with no formal qualifications in the areas that interested me most.

And what interested me most? Well, it was the nature of the human condition. I desired more knowledge and understanding about what makes us human and what might be done in workplaces to nurture the humanity of employees whilst still meeting the demands of business.

On accepting my management role, I was sent away to do a live-in course on management conducted by the Australian Institute of Management. This was many years ago, but as I recall the course was largely focussed on financial management and governance issues. There was nothing at all about understanding people and how to engage them in the workplace. That seemed to me, even then, a crucial issue.

Few of the managers I had worked for seemed to be useful role models so I tried to broaden my knowledge by extensive reading and my own experimentation in the workplace.

It seemed to me that employees must be motivated by the same things that I was. Consequently I came to believe that reasonable autonomy, interesting work, opportunities to learn and grow as well as an opportunity to make a difference were important. I came to realise later that whilst these assumptions were generally true, there were still numerous exceptions.

As much as we might despise Marxism, Karl Marx had a number of powerful insights. His criticism of capitalism was based in part on his justified claim that the Industrial Revolution had destroyed the historical relationship between the craftsmen and the goods they produced. Assembly line work turned people into cogs in a giant machine and that machine did not care for the needs of the worker.

Some of the aspects of Fredrick Winslow Taylor’s Scientific Management contributed to this malaise by increasing specialisation and division of labour resulting in proscribed and demeaning job roles.

In 1964, the sociologists Melvin Kohn and Carmi Schooler surveyed 3,100 American men about their jobs and found that the key to understanding which jobs were satisfying was what they called “occupational self-direction”. Men who were closely supervised in jobs of low complexity and much routine showed the highest degree of alienation. They felt powerlessness, dissatisfaction and disconnected. Men who had more latitude in deciding how they approached work that was varied and challenging tended to enjoy their work much more.

With these findings in mind I began to pursue various modes of worker participation to allow employees to have some voice in planning and work allocation and provided training for them in problem solving.

Many of these initiatives were opposed by unions. The very alienation that was debilitating to employees and detrimental to organisational productivity has often been fostered by unions. It suits unions to portray the workplace as necessarily hostile to employees where conflict with management is commonplace. Some workers have assimilated such notions to the extent that (as we will see later) they believe it is impossible to be happy at work. Those who view the workplace in such a way believe it is only the union that can shield them from the indignities that management would bestow on them.

But later on, when trying to improve worker participation and the formation of teams, we learnt that some employees didn’t respond favourably. Some told us that instead of being involved in planning and organising work, they were happier with just being told what to do. That taught us that when employing people we had to ensure that they were compatible with the culture we were trying to create. Such cultural compatibility became a strong focus of our selection processes.

In the second half of my career in the Electricity Industry I was fortunate enough to be able to manage the start-up of two new power stations. Traditionally work in power stations was closely prescribed by the award system and exacerbated by strict union demarcations. This led to low productivity and uninteresting jobs. We were able to negotiate industrial agreements that largely allowed employees do any work they were competent to do. We also provided training that enhanced employees’ competence. Consequently we were able to provide better, more fulfilling work for our employees.

In the traditional power station a siren sounded to signal the commencement of work, the start and completion of breaks, and finally the end of work. It smacked of a regime that treated people as automatons. So we decided to have no sirens. I told my supervisors, “We don’t care when people have their breaks or how long they take for their breaks as long as the work is completed”. So under this arrangement a tradesman, for example, might choose to finish a job and then take his break later. Or if he finished early, instead of coming back to the workshop to kill time before having his lunch, he might take his lunch early and then move on to his next job.

My management peers from other power stations warned me that such lax management of time would result in employees taking advantage of our latitude and result in our workforce using this unwarranted benevolence to avoid work. But of course that never happened and our workforce was demonstrably far more productive than that in other power stations.

In the second power station I started up, the employees had annualised salaries that were calculated to compensate employees for a generous estimate of what overtime they were likely to work. Because the power station was a considerable distance from town, employees were bussed to work. (This not only provided a benefit to employees but reduced traffic congestion at start and finish times.) Now there was no monetary incentive for employees to work past normal ceasing time. But increasingly they did so to such an extent we were forced to schedule a “late” bus to cater for those who voluntarily worked back.

Now this was a well-motivated workforce where people had a reasonable degree of autonomy and employee participation was applied quite widely. So by treating people properly we had many in the ranks demonstrating the “professionalism” that in other power stations would have only been seen in senior ranks, largely by those with tertiary qualifications.

An amusing side effect of this way of working arose one day during the visit from a union official. (One of the advantages of the workplace agreement I had negotiated was that only two unions had coverage of our workforce. In other power stations management were forced to deal with nine separate unions, which was a recipe for disaster!) Now because people had sometimes to work back unexpectedly, we had a freezer full of frozen meals in case they needed to eat. The union official, as usual trying to find an issue to take to management to justify his existence, approached one of my managers and said something to the effect that, “My members have a serious grievance that I want you to address.”

The manager was puzzled by this not being aware of any particular disgruntlement among those he supervised. “And what might this grievance be?” he enquired.

“It is the standard of the food. Many of my members dislike the food you provide for them after hours.”

My manager scratched his head and finally responded, “But how can that be my problem?”

The official said, “Well of course it’s your problem. Management provides the food and my members say it is not good enough”.

“You obviously don’t know the arrangement we have with our employees.”

“What is that?”

“Well when the freezer is getting a little low we get one of those who use the frozen food to go into town and replenish it. They get a cash advance from petty cash and buy whatever they want. So if some of your members don’t like what’s in the freezer they should take it up with their colleagues because management has nothing to do with it.”

Unsurprisingly that grievance didn’t see the light of day!

But we must be aware that there is a discomfiting spectrum here. On the one hand we have employees who despise working and only see work as an access to remuneration. My good friend Dr Phil related to me a story of his visit to another power station. One of the fellows he knew was loitering outside the workshop having a cigarette obviously waiting for the siren to sound to indicate the morning break. For simplicity in telling the story let’s call the man “Harry”. Phil approaches and asks, “How are you doing, Harry?”

“Well how the bloody hell would you think I’m doing?” responds Harry. “I’m at work aren’t I? I’ve never enjoyed a day’s work in my life. And what’s more, my father before me said the same.”

So for whatever reason, some people are conditioned to believe that work is abhorrent. They are reluctant participants at best and see coming to work as only a means to a pay cheque.

But at the other end of the spectrum there are people who voluntarily work long hours for no additional payment. There are three principal reasons for this.

Firstly, there are some workplaces where advancement is achieved by demonstrating devotion to work. Professional services firms often display this trait. Lawyers from my experience as an executive coach are the prime example. This places a particularly onerous burden on women who are also mothers who are torn between a desire to demonstrate their conscientiousness at work and their maternal instincts which are compelling them to spend time with their children, especially when they are younger.

Secondly, some people find their work extraordinarily fulfilling. The work of one of the founders of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is particularly pertinent here. Csikszentmihalyi coined the notion of “flow”. When people are occupied using their “signature strengths” they become so engaged and so engrossed that time passes without their being aware of it. These are fortunate people whose work lives provide an opportunity to indulge their preferred skills and aptitudes productively which renders their work meaningful and satisfying.

The third category of workers who work unnecessarily long hours is that sad coterie who find the work environment more congenial than their home environment. Just as there is a group who avoid work, there is a group who are reluctant to go home. It can often be a symptom of marriage breakdown or other dysfunction in the personal life of the employee.

But work, for most people, provides more than a pay packet. It normally helps employees meet some of their intrinsic needs. What are those needs? In previous essays I have described them as:

  • Physical,
  • Social,
  • Intellectual, and
  • Spiritual,


No doubt for most people it is the pay packet that is sought after to address many of their physical needs.

But the work environment is often important in meeting people’s social needs. In many workplaces a spirit of camaraderie exists that many find hard to replicate elsewhere. Many years ago I read a story of a cleaning lady who won a fortune in a lottery. When asked what she was going to do now that she didn’t have to work she responded that she would continue her job because she valued the friendships she had at her place of work! And I suspect that for many people the social component of their work is also important to them. I certainly assert that for myself I have a lot of fond memories of my relationships and interactions at work.

And beyond this, work can be intellectually stimulating. Moreover, many workplaces provide opportunities for training and personal development. Consequently work can also meet much of our third set of human needs – our needs for intellectual stimulation.

But the last set of needs is more important than most people think – our spiritual needs. Now before I elaborate on this I will define what I mean by spiritual needs. My definition of spiritual needs is our needs for a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. When people see that what they do at work makes a positive contribution to society, and if they understand how their contribution makes a difference, then they will go some way to fulfilling their spiritual needs.

Now all of this serves to highlight the dilemma of unemployment. It is not just that unemployed people don’t get a pay cheque, but they miss out on the opportunity of fulfilling many of their human needs. Governments tend to use unemployment as an indicator of economic well-being with low levels of unemployment reflecting a strong economy. But we should never forget that, for the reasons enunciated above unemployment is also a potent social indicator.

In the current environment with coronavirus wreaking havoc, it seems inevitable that business conditions will deteriorate, resulting in far higher levels of unemployment. Bear in mind then that those who lose their jobs are faced with a bigger issue than just losing their pay cheques. Many will also be deprived of one the prime opportunities for personal fulfilment and meaning in their lives.



2 Replies to “The Importance of Work”

  1. Ted,
    What is one man’s work is another man’s play. Trouble is many others do not necessarily like to see one “play” with very capital intensive equipment. Some would call this embarrassing the managers with the result that one can no longer play as much as one would like. So to compensate for my spirit I voluntarily do some really ‘hard work’ down on the mate’s farm and get really good instantaneous job satisfaction, as we fix the fence, fix the motor, loaded the hay, harvested the nuts. These days my engineering satisfaction usually comes after about seven years of planting the seed, nurturing, coaching, gathering support and maybe project execution.
    Joys of playing contractor/consultant. Thankyou for working/playing at the power station game together.

    1. Great to hear from you, Des. I will never forget your contribution to the Stanwell vision. It is such a pity that no one else took up the cudgel after we demonstrated what could be done! It was a pleasure working/playing alongside you!

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