What kinds of people fuel the new backlash? Why do we need limits on paid work?

Post in: German

A continuation of the Blog on the new Backlash: why we need to defend work-life research and policies, from my presentation at the Conference “6th International Community, Work and Family Conference in Malmö, Sweden from 19-22 May 2015”. This presentation and blog were inspired by my response to Thomas Vasek’s book “Work-Life Bullshit” which we discussed together at a CLBO event in July 2014.
What kinds of people are attracted to the thesis that work-life initiatives are, pardon me, “baloney”?
Two kinds of people:

  1. People who already love their work and feel supported by it, who draw from their work a source of friends and identity and personal growth. These folks probably have a lot of opportunity to decide themselves when, where, and how they work, or if not, the conditions are already good. Why should we set limits on a good thing? I will answer that question in a moment.
  2. People who are in power at work but feeling stretched by the inconsistencies of the ideal worker / marginalized caregiver model on the one hand and the realities of their followers’ lives. These could be managers and leaders who are fed up with work-life concepts because they get in the way of doing the “real business at hand” and create more pressure for those left behind by the work-life initiatives (enter the first kind of backlash, against individual colleagues to take advantage of programs). These could be bosses who have no understanding about what it’s like for people who do not possess their income and power and the solutions to the ideal worker / marginalized caregiver dichotomy that power and income bring.

Why should we set limits on a good thing, if our work is good?
The undercurrent to the whole story of backlash is not only the ways in which the structures of work, other people at work, or cultures within organizations may make work unpleasant for the workers. It’s also about the ways we make work unpleasant for ourselves, through self-exploitation. And it’s about whether we need to be protected from ourselves at work.
Work is unfortunately not always good. Dirty, distressing, exhausting, demeaning jobs do exist, unfortunately; jobs that stress the body, mind, or spirit. The geographic area, the skill set, the market, the financial emergency, the responsibilities to bring in money to support other people, there are lots of reasons that constrain choices of kinds of work. Some colleagues are toxic. Some bosses are narcissistic. Sometimes we find ourselves in double-binds at work. Sometimes it’s just too much of a good thing and we lose perspective or even the desire to work.
These are important reasons to set limits on work. When leaders, bosses, or managers won’t do set those limits, or we ourselves are unable to, we need policies that will protect us. Unions fought hard for limits to working days, representing workers whose working conditions were far from comfortable. Separating unpleasant or demeaning or stressful work from “life” can protect our identity, our sense of self, our pride. The separation can protect our relationships by allowing us to give them our full and undivided attention.
Even “good” jobs need limits. Even those who gladly integrate work with their lives because their identity, sense of mission, sense of achievement is strengthened by their work role and daily tasks need to set boundaries to be sure that other areas are not coming up too short.
Life has cycles. Human work must have cycles too. The idea of continuous full-power rational logical uninterrupted work is something that we get from machines – as long as they have fuel, they keep going. We’re not machines. We’re organic. Our bodies, like the planet Earth itself, have seasons and ebbs and flows of energy. We need sleep, food, rest, moments to let our brains go on alternative currents of daydreaming and distraction. These breaks fulfill important cognitive, emotional, and biological functions. Every day, every week, every month, every year, we need various kinds of rest moments. Just from a biological perspective, to say nothing of a psychological or spiritual perspective. We are not machines. Many suffer from neck, shoulder, or back pain, often caused by computer work. The remedy is well-known: take breaks. move your body. Adjust your position. If we get away from the work for periods of rest, we are actually able then to return to the work better off. We can keep doing the work. Take a break and then be refreshed.
Besides the ability to sustain work, pauses can actually improve work. The pauses between the notes are what make music great. Similarly, the pauses between the bursts of work are where the new ideas are going to arise. Many realize that their best ideas or solutions come when they’re in the shower, on a walk, in the woods, cooking a meal, gardening, driving, and not actively thinking about whatever the situation was? That’s how we’re wired! That’s one reason why work-life is valuable. If we get away from the work we are actually able then to bring more to the work.
Another reason why we need to set limits on work, even if it’s a good thing, is that it’s dangerous not to. Mark Twain once said, “Put all your eggs in one basket and then WATCH THAT BASKET.” I love Mark Twain’s writing but I disagree with him here. If work is all we have, if it’s our complete identity, what happens if our job disappears, due to a layoff or illness, or retirement? If our work is our identity, who we are entirely, what do we have if it’s gone? Our identity must transcend all roles and statuses. Otherwise, when we lose those statuses, when children grow up or a partner leaves or dies or a job is lost, who are we?
Even the most exciting job, relationship, project, or identity needs breathing room. Each has its own cycles, times when it’s not going very well. The constant high performance we expect of ourselves, our relationships, and our work is not only unrealistic, it’s counterproductive. Let it be, ride it out, wait out the cycle. Do something else for a while, and let that area of life arrive in its new place. Cycles are everywhere. The lows in one area of life, for example when experiencing a bad day (or year) at work, can be counterbalanced by highs in other spheres of life, such as a chat with a good friend or a sense of mission about a passion, a chance to make music, an opportunity to deepen a family relationship or care for another person. And vice versa. Work can be the safe stable place when relationships are falling apart elsewhere. Each has its cycles, and having multiple spheres helps us stay afloat through the dark times.
Finally, another reason why even the most rewarding work needs a counterpoint or two: The core in each of us that transcends labels, titles, responsibilities, and roles demands and needs to be fed. We are more than the sum of the tasks we do or the ideas we generate.
When we lose touch with our sense of self outside the roles and responsibilities, we run the risk of becoming a projection wand for everyone else. We toil to fulfill their demands and needs, leaving ourselves ultimately empty. The authentic self comes not only from authentic work, in line with our values, but also authentic connection to all that we already are, what we’ve had with us as a core self since birth, that person who we are outside of our activities. Getting back in touch with this person, the inner core person we each are, takes time and quiet. Observation, patience. Freedom from judgment or the constant evaluation of whether it’s productive or good or bad.

Conference: “6th International Community, Work and Family Conference: Malmö, Sweden 19-22 May 2015”
Presentation slides given at the conference: 2015-05-20 Work-Life Backlash-online
Works cited

  • Becker, Tobias. (2013). Sachbuch “Work-Life-Bullshit”: Die Mär vom glücklichen Malocher. Speigel Online Kultur, October 9. http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/literatur/das-buch-von-thomas-vasek-work-life-bullshit-a-926733.html. Last accessed 19. April 2015.
  • Friedman, Stew. (2008). Total Leadership: Be a better leader, have a richer life. Boston: Harvard Business Press.
  • Parker, L., & Allen, T. D. (2001). Work/family benefits: Variables related to employees’ fairness perceptions. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 58, 453-468.
  • Vašek, Thomas. (2013). Work-Life-Bullshit. Warum die Trennung von Arbeit und Leben in die Irre führt. Munich: Riemann Verlag.
  • Williams, Joan. (2000). Unbending Gender: Why work and Family Conflict and What we Can Do About It. Oxford University Press.
  • Young, M. B. (1999). Work-family backlash: Begging the question, what’s fair? The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 562, 32-46.
  • Additional sources regarding the topic of Work-Life Backlash (Note: some defend the ideas of work-family integration / balance / optimization)

  • Amrhein, Marie. (2014). Work-Life-Bullshit. Cicero: Magazin für Politische Kultur. http://www.cicero.de/berliner-republik/generation-y-work-life-bullshit/57311. Accessed on 19. April 2015.
  • Colonna, Jerry. (2011). Work-Life Balance is Bullshit. Jerry+ The Monster in your Head Blog. http://www.themonsterinyourhead.com/2011/05/05/work-life-balance-is-bullshit/. Accessed on 19. April 2015.
  • Hofert, Svenja. (2013). Work-Life-Bullshit: Müssen wir unser Leben vor der Arbeit schützen? Svenja Hofert HR- und Karriereblog + Akademie. http://karriereblog.svenja-hofert.de/2013/11/work-life-bullshit-muessen-wir-unser-leben-vor-der-arbeit-schuetzen/. Accessed on 19. April 2015.
  • Knauß, Ferdinand. (2013). Work-Life-Balance: Ein Plädoyer für den Feierabend. Wirtschaftswoche. http://www.wiwo.de/erfolg/beruf/work-life-balance-ein-plaedoyer-fuer-den-feierabend/8770102.html. Accessed on 19. April 2015.
  • Mai, Jochen. (2015). Work-Life-Balance: 5 Antithesen. Karriere Bibel. http://karrierebibel.de/work-life-balance/. Accessed on 19. April 2015.
  • Marcel. (2014). Work Life Balance Bullshit. Marcelway.com Blog. http://www.marcelway.com/work-life-balance-bullshit/. Accessed on 19. April 2015.
  • Müller, Katharina. (2014). Ratschläge aus dem Elfenbeinturm. Spektrum.de. http://www.spektrum.de/rezension/work-life-bullshit/1256538. Accessed on 19. April 2015.
  • Turkel, Bruce. (2014). Work Life Balance is Bullshit. Bruce Turkel Building Brand Value Blog. http://turkeltalks.com/work-life-balance-bullshit. Accessed on 19. April 2015.
  • Weinberg, Helge. (2013). Ich mach mir die Welt, wie sie mir gefällt: Work-Life-Balance ist überflüssig? Helge Weinbergs Blog. http://blog.helge-weinberg.de/2013/ich-mach-mir-die-welt-wie-sie-mir-gefaellt-work-life-balance-ist-ueberfluessig/. Accessed on 19. April 2015.
  • Wüst, Gunther. (2014). Interview mit Thomas Vasek zum Buch “Work-Life-Bullshit:Warum die trennung von Arbeit und Leben in die Irre führt.” Himaniax Blog. http://www.humaniax.com/blog/interview-mit-thomas-vasek-zum-buch-work-life-bullshit-warum-die-trennung-von-arbeit-und-leben-in-die-irre-fuehrt/. Accessed on 19. April 2015.
  • Additional Links:

  • http://4managers.de/wellness/literatur/work-life-bullshit/
  • http://karrierebibel.de/work-life-blending-arbeits-und-privatleben-verschmelzen/
  • http://motif.institute/work-life-balance-oder-work-life-bullshit/
  • http://t3n.de/news/evernote-work-life-balance-cebit-534429/
  • http://www.ausdauerblog.de/work-life-balance-ist-bullshit-artikel-der-woche/
  • http://www.der-bank-blog.de/work-life-bullshit/fuehrung-und-management/13724/
  • http://www.evidero.de/introvertierte-menschen
  • http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/media/senior-radio-executive-linda-wayman-says-she-offers-staff-condoms/story-e6frg996-1227249443927
  • http://www.wj-goeppingen.de/?event=juniorenabend-mit-vortrag-work-life-bullshit
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