“And to make work ‘work’ for our lives it’s not just about work/life balance. It’s about gender equality, breaking down the patriarchy, the system of white supremacy and this system of capitalism. The model of capitalism that we have is broken,” said Eva Dienel, Journalist and Work Sustainability Expert.
According to SHRM, more than half of workers plan to change jobs. As the war for talent resumes, employers in high growth industries will return their attention to wooing job seekers. Usually in the form of shiny benefits and promised work/life balance. But work stress is a leading cause of personal distress. Because it’s how we’re treated in the middle and the end of a tenure, not only the beginning, that matters. And organizations rarely see how their failure to deliver on promises, can inflict long-term harm.
Like any other relationship, there are rules. And expectations. But unlike other partnerships, all the power moves from the worker to the employer once the offer letter is signed. How can organizations show a responsible use of that power?
Create the High-Performance Culture Without the Self-Sacrifice
Many of us derive a sense of purpose and accomplishment from work. And the desire to be excellent at work can be motivating. And a healthy expression of our gifts. If the bar is in the right place. Which is hard to do, based on how most organizations measure value. Eva said, “If you’re thinking about work as a quality product that you can give to people in your organization, then you start to think about your role as an employer differently.” And it requires awareness by the leadership and people managers. Where can employers begin?
Fix What’s Broken
Eva pointed out what most of us experience. The employer has most of the control in the work/life equation. She said, “There’s so much that they can control! They can control pay, working conditions, culture and how they share power, to prevent toxic workplaces.” But most organizations don’t view their role holistically. And if they do, they may not want to share any of that power.
Or their managers may not know how to. She said, “The mental model of capitalism we have is broken if it pushes quantity over quality. And drives efficiency in dollars over humane treatment of the people who are doing the job.”
Like Expecting Employees to Break Themselves
It’s true, many businesses rely on the heroics of their employees. People who go to extraordinary lengths, at great personal cost, to meet deadlines. Even when it’s unreasonable to do so. And there’s a lot baked into the culture of work that rewards this. Eva said, “If anyone in your organization is breaking themselves to create whatever the work it is, then there’s something wrong with your organization.” Amen. How do we end the cycle?
Most organizations focus on hard measures of success. Like revenue, profit and customer retention. Many of those quantitative goals trickle down to individual performance reviews. But the goals rarely change, even when the market conditions or resources do. And managers generally expect people to ‘work hard’ and stay ‘busy.’ Which is almost like asking people to look busy. So, invisible tallies are kept for visible work hours. Which leads to days filled with meetings and email. Tasks that compete with the deep work time, necessary to create meaningful output.
And Reevaluate What Quality Really Means
Many of us love what we do. But even if work lights you up, as Eva states, “that doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice everything to the God of professional productivity.” Right. Because if you look underneath many of the success metrics, whether it’s money made or hours spent, they’re not always an accurate health check for the business. Even though they’re usually the bars held up for performance standards.
And What Makes a Job a Good One
Eva said, “I am not saying that every job has to be fulfilling. Every job doesn’t have to be about purpose, right? I interviewed someone who worked for a tech company in Human Resources. She said, ‘look I’m not doing this job to fulfill any particular professional ambition. I’m doing this job to live the life that I want.’ And she’s a digital nomad who travels all around the world.”
So even if choosing a role isn’t about identity, what does a ‘good job’ mean? Eva said, “It should pay well, it should provide the benefits and the flexibility that you need to live a balanced, healthy life. It should be a healthy work culture that treats everybody equally. And includes the voices of people who don’t traditionally have access to platforms that give them a voice.” Yes! But can that happen in a vacuum?
And Align the Comp to the Community Standard of Living
Big companies often have philanthropic goals. But what if the idea of employer responsibility went further than donations and volunteerism? Eva said, “I’m thinking of my old neighborhood in Oakland. The minimum wage jobs there should provide the money that people need to live a good life in Oakland. That should be the baseline standard.” What if corporate social responsibility, included stewardship over the community and environment? It’s a different view of an employer’s role.
Leaders, Take the Leap
There are some high-profile standouts. Eva said, “There are great examples, like Patagonia, where you see there is an intentionality, about work as a product. And there must be some correlation, right? Because they are also successful in the traditional way that success is judged.” Exactly.
Although, B-Corps are having a moment, they’re still a small percentage of our economy. Why do so few companies follow this path? Eva said, “I don’t know if it’s courage. But if more leaders of organizations took the leap, would they fall back and find that things are fine? Like, guess what, you’re not going to drop to the ground. Creating a system of health and wellbeing for your people, will catch you. You will get the good result if you allow people to work that way. So, I’m a believer that is the case. Even though the data probably isn’t all there to support that.” Well back to measuring the right things. What if we looked deeper than employee retention?
To Allow for an Updated Version of “Having it All”
Employee health, the quality of their relationships, learning and financial growth, aren’t standard corporate success measures. But they’re hallmarks of personal happiness. And why not measure the factors behind worker wellbeing? Since organizations still rely on people.
Although, women were hurt the most by pandemic job losses, it’s not just women, Mothers or even parents leaving or being forced from, traditional work. Entrepreneurship is on the rise. Particularly for those on the wrong side of the leadership gap, like women and people of color.
We discussed the ‘have it all’ fantasy. And Eva said, “Having it all, to me is that work should work, for whatever it is that you want to prioritize. If that’s being a role model in your community, then it’s having a job that allows you the time and space for that. And the pay to live in that community. And that you’re able to bring your whole identity to your job. So, that you’re not discriminated against for that identity. That’s ‘having it all.’ Work should ‘work’ for our lives. We shouldn’t have to make our lives work for work.”
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Many thanks to the talented Eva Dienel!
Eva is a writer, editor, and communications consultant with more than 20 years of experience telling stories that matter—stories with an environmental, social, or human focus that engage people in making the world a better place. Her clients are global leaders in sustainability, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Participant Media, ClimateWorks Foundation, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), The Tiffany & Co. Foundation, Gap Inc., Futerra, and many more. She is also the co-creator, with Christine Bader, of the storytelling project The Life I Want, about a future of work that works for all.She started her career as a magazine journalist at Outside, Mother Jones, Fitness, and Imagination Publishing, and spent the next several years as a book editor at Sierra Club Books and Wilderness Press. Most recently, she led content, media, and communications strategy at the global nonprofit sustainable business network Business for Social Responsibility (BSR). She has a master’s degree in magazine publishing and bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where she also taught in the National High School Institute “journalism cherub” program.