Does work suck?

Aug 26 2009 by Philip Whiteley Print This Article

Work is like sex. Most information comes from unofficial sources. Just as playground gossip, teenage fumblings and pornography shaped your attitude to sex more than your biology teacher, so is it likely that the songs you listened to, the sitcoms you watched and the books you read had greater bearing on your attitudes towards work than your 20 minutes with a careers adviser.

The most striking observation about the treatment of employment in fiction and song is just how unremittingly negative it is. In Billy Liar it is death. In Emile Zola's Germinal it is a devouring beast. In a thousand other books, songs, and situation comedies, it is the enemy of the free soul.

Singer-songwriters through the ages have wailed at the enslavement of either hard labour or nine-to-five tedium, and penned their dreams of escape. Before we have even reached working age we have been bombarded with images, archetypes and subliminal messages about employment. With very few exceptions, they tell the same tale: work sucks!

What is the legacy? Is it possible that, for some people, Paul Weller or Morrissey was the principal careers adviser? And have there been wider influences? While engineering and construction firms struggle to find apprentices, there is no shortage of youngsters who cannot sing queuing all night for the chance to appear on Pop Idol.

Clearly, they believe that a career in the entertainment industry is more rewarding than manufacturing and commerce. Literature, situation comedy and song appear to have redefined our perceptions of work, without any of us noticing.

We use the phrase work-life balance as though work were the opposite of life, rather than something that can give us status, good living standards and, in many cases, deep satisfaction, achievement and camaraderie. It's often said that our house is our biggest asset, but it's not Ė our career is. Typically, a career is worth three or four times more than the house in the course of a working life.

During the past 70 years, there have been hundreds of research studies showing that workplaces with high levels of commitment, and promising career options for the staff, out-perform more exploitative companies across a range of measures, including financial.

Investing intelligently in people is the most lucrative, least risky way of making money. The most striking aspect to this huge volume of literature and practical example is the extent to which it is ignored. Few other areas of human activity are so little influenced by evidence. As the US management author Jeffrey Pfeffer observed in The Human Equation:

"Something very strange is happening in organizational management. Over the past decade or so, numerous rigorous studies...have demonstrated the enormous economic returns obtained through the implementation of what are variously called high involvement, high performance or high commitment management practices Ö [but] trends in actual management practice are, in many instances, moving in a direction exactly opposite to what this growing body of evidence prescribes."

Research by Jeffrey Pfeffer and others conveys a clear message: that the better the conditions and opportunities for staff, the higher the chances of strong business returns. Turning to literature and popular entertainment, however, the message is the opposite: that the worse the conditions, the higher the profits.


Meet the New Boss

Philip Whiteley's new book, Meet The New Boss, an informative and entertaining look at the influence of literature, popular music and comedy on how we perceive work.

We will be exclusively serialising excerpts from the book over the coming weeks. Meet The New Boss will be published in March 2010.

Meet the New Boss asks whether our reluctance to adopt the practices of good management lies deep in the cultural sub-conscious; in the ideas described in our commonly shared fables.

It casts a friendly but critical eye on the great books, stirring anthems and memorable comedies in which the character Work plays an almost perfect villain; at the ennui and exploitation endured; at the often-thwarted dreams it has inspired. We meet Ebenezer Scrooge, Basil Fawlty and David Brent. We listen to Paul Robeson, Bob Marley, Dolly Parton and Paul Weller.

It also seeks to set out some practical alternatives for managers seeking to improve working conditions, and for individuals who feel trapped in a profession they do not love. It helps to meet and greet the characters from fiction, and challenge whether the stories we imbibed so long ago have helped or hindered our careers.


About The Author

Philip Whiteley
Philip Whiteley

Philip Whiteley, co-author of the Radical Shift blog, is a journalist specialising in management, particularly the areas of leadership, motivation and strategic human resources. He is also the Chairman of the Human Capital Forum.