Too devoted to work

Tue, 17 Sep 2013

Last weekend, as I was jogging around my local park, I was pleased to discover a name for a problem I worry a lot about: The Work Devotion Ideal.  I like it having a name, because problems with names can be dropped into conversation, forcing others to think about it and have an opinion.

I discovered the term in an HBR interview with Joan C. Williams, a Professor of Law at the University of California.  The idea is that many people, men in particular, feel that their work is their primary source of identity, of moral worth.  It is the most obvious way to show that you're successful, a real man, someone to 'be reckoned with'.

I suppose I should be happy we're no longer dependent on our ability to hunt or fight for self worth.  But the work devotion ideal isn't without its damaging effects, to the individual, or to society.

When too much work is done, it can lead to workers feeling conflicted between their work life and family / community engagement.  It can lead to them doing work that doesn't really need doing, or is even harmful - taking unjustified risks or taking advantage of colleagues, customers, society or the planet.

And when work isn't available to be done, it can lead to the person feeling socially useless, affecting relationships and personal wellbeing, even beyond the financial lack of income.  We know that technology and globalisation are going to lead to increasing unemployment and underemployment, and I see this as a major risk for our society.

It pleases me that increasing numbers of people (both men and women) want to work in a more balanced way.  But companies and individuals still naturally look for and favour employees that display the work devotion ideal, without recognising the costs.

The sooner we get the balance right, personally and in our companies, the better off we'll be.  So I'd encourage you to have a read or listen to the article, and be mindful of how your actions perpetuate or challenge the work devotion ideal.