Can work be good for the soul?

As we all reflect on how we recover from the global pandemic, I ask whether work positively influences our lives.

Going for a walk in lush woodland can be very good for the soul: the sun on your skin as you move through the dappled shade of the canopy. Or spending time with friends and loved ones. That, too, can be very good for the soul. If you ask anyone to describe what fulfills them or what makes their heart feel alive, you will get a wide array of responses. But few will talk about their job with the same kind of relish or thrill. There are those who love what they do, but for many, the corporate experience is draining or unfulfilling: something to be dreaded as Monday looms.

And so I find myself reflecting on the question: can work be good for our soul? 

What does it mean to 'be good for the soul'?

A google search on this particular question throws up all kinds of interesting advice: it is widely accepted that confession is good for the soul, but so too, apparently, are pajamas. Speak to any health or well-being adviser and you will hear a wide range of different suggestions on what might be considered as good for the soul. 

Let's start by considering work fulfillment and satisfaction, or employee engagement, to use the organisational vernacular. In research from the engagement specialists, Gallup, in 2016, "just 8% of employed Britons were engaged at work, down from 17% in 2012." Nearly 1 in 5, were classified as 'actively disengaged' resulting in extremely negative emotions, such as anger or resentment. The remaining 73%? These 'not engaged' individuals were described as "psychologically unattached and putting little energy or passion into their work." Hardly soul-enriching.

Perhaps we also need to address whether work is good for our health? In his book, 'Dying for a paycheck,' Jeffrey Pfeffer references research study after research study demonstrating the sheer scale and cost the modern workplace is having on the health and well-being of employees. Using multiple studies and methods, he quantifies the cost of job stress to US employers as over $300 billion each year and that in China, as many as one million people could be dying from overwork. This research does not focus on jobs in physically dangerous environments; it examines the working experience in everyday organisations.

What about the increasing trend towards people working later in life? Is this purely driven by economics? According to Harvard Health Publishing, there is a growing body of research that seems to suggest working past retirement age can improve health outcomes and increase longevity. Though it is noted that this is not the case for everyone. Indeed, some studies prove that retirement was linked to reduced stress and mental health problems. In this article, Associate Professor of healthcare policy at Harvard, Nicole Maestas, concludes that people should continue to work only if the role is something they enjoy, which typically means something that has meaning or purpose.

So it appears that for many of us, work is not even good for our health, far less our soul, and a part of life that we need to psychologically detach from to make it tolerable. This does not tell a story of being good for the soul, but one of compartmentalisation and detachment. Of course, this is subjective; it is specific to each individual, but consideration for our soul means we need to take a whole-person approach: to consider the rational, emotional, and spiritual being.

Why might work not be good for the soul?

Let's briefly explore the history of management in organisations. During the 19th century, the first industrial revolution saw the working experience of many transform as machines were invented to power greater output and productivity. The era of the worker was born. But it was only early in the twentieth century when Frederick Taylor introduced a more scientific way to think about work. Taylor is often quoted as complaining that "hardly a workman can be found who doesn't devote his time to studying just how slowly he can work." The underlying management assumption here was that workers were lazy and needed managers to drive greater efficiency and productivity. His basic premise was that by studying workflow and process, efficiencies could be achieved. This resulted in work standardisation and the breakdown of work output into smaller, repetitive work packets. To achieve this efficiency, the role of management was to break work into smaller tasks, instruct workers how to do these tasks most efficiently, and monitor their performance. Ford achieved great success by embracing scientific management as the fundamental principle of creating mass-market motorcars.

The underlying assumption is worthy of further discussion. In the 50s, Douglas McGregor proposed two extreme management assumptions: theory X and Y. Theory X assumed workers were lazy, motivated by fear, and needed to be coerced to deliver results. Theory Y, by contrast, assumed workers were highly creative when given recognition, could thrive on responsibility, and were motivated by self-development and contribution. At the same time, Maslow also advocated that work could be good for the soul. Once physiological needs were taken care of, he believed that the need for self-actualisation was highly motivating for people, to be able to have the "full use of talents." 

So why is it that over 70 years later, we still find many leadership and management practices based on theory X assumptions? Have we not learned anything? Let's look at some examples of what we see in organisations today. The vast majority of organisations design their reward and recognition strategies around extrinsic motivators, such as individual performance bonuses and reward packages. We have linked profit and personal gain to create a transactional exchange: sell more and get more. As people progress to more senior roles with greater responsibility, the assumption is that fatter salaries require more commitment: we coerce longer hours by throwing money at the problem. The annual budgeting cycle goes through multiple iterations as leaders reject team budgets and ask to project more: surely teams are low-balling to make their lives easier? What assumption belies this leadership behaviour? Is it a lack of ambition? Or laziness?

Is there another way?

Numerous thought leaders have led the way in setting out a new way of thinking. Simon Sinek's 'Start with why' was first published in 2009 and advocated the need for leaders to connect with purpose to inspire and motivate others. Around the same time, Dan Pink described the importance of mastery, autonomy, and purpose to motivate higher levels of engagement and productivity. Many pioneering organisations are also carving a new way for their employees. In his groundbreaking handbook, 'Reinventing organizations,' Frederic Laloux integrates developmental theory with organisational and business model design to showcase how pioneering leaders have crafted an alternative employee experience. In their blog and book, 'Corporate Rebels,' Joost Minnaar and Pim De Morree document their learnings from travelling the world to visit pioneering businesses on their 'bucket list.' These are just a few inspiring examples of enlightened leaders experimenting with new models and ideas.

So can work be good for the soul? It looks like the answer can be yes. If the organisations we work in are driven by a higher purpose, we can find meaning in the work we do. If the leaders we work with trust us to do the right thing, we can have autonomy. If there are psychologically-safe practices in place, we can bring our whole selves to work and that is welcomed.

This can be an exhilarating, yet challenging, journey for leaders. Are you up for it?