My plea for a more compassionate work environment
December 2009 (perspective of a Ph.D. student)
I make the claim that unhappiness in one's work environment is one of the biggest causes of unhappiness in one's personal life, especially for middle-aged, middle-class working professionals. I think that the most effective way to improve the lives of this large population of people is to encourage their employers to foster a work environment that encourages compassion, empathy, and altruism.
Some pieces of common knowledge
It's common knowledge that many middle-class, middle-aged people in wealthy first-world societies (e.g., the United States) have all sorts of problems in their personal lives, such as:
It's also common knowledge that many middle-class, middle-aged people in wealthy first-world societies are not happy with their jobs. Now, I'm not talking about poor third-world people working in dangerous sub-human sweatshop conditions, and I'm also not talking about lower-class people in wealthy countries working unpalatable, low-paying menial jobs. I'm talking about middle-class men and women who definitely make enough money to financially sustain themselves and their families. These are engineers, corporate middle managers, lawyers, doctors, accountants, etc. Money is not an issue for them—it's job satisfaction that they lack. Some sources of dissatisfaction include:
It's also common knowledge that middle-class working professionals spend more of their waking time at their workplace doing their job than in any other activity (e.g., running errands, reading, watching TV, hobbies, spending time with family).
Finally, it's common knowledge that most people do not have much control over their work environment: It's not so easy to switch jobs or to make a living running your own business, especially as you grow older and have to think about keeping a paycheck coming in every month to feed your family.
Unhappiness at work directly leads to unhappiness at home
My claim is that a sad work environment directly leads to a sad home life. If most people:
then it should come as no surprise that a work environment that fosters unhappiness makes it difficult for people to find happiness in their personal lives.
Since it's common knowledge that most work environments foster a great deal of unhappiness, especially for middle-aged people who have been in the work force for 20 to 30 years, it's unfathomable to expect that so many people can be unhappy at work and then morph into a different, happier person the moment they leave their office and return home.
One's work identity is a major component of one's personal identity, especially for well-educated middle-class professionals. After all, they went to school for years to train for their job, learned specialized technical skills, and have close friends in the same profession with whom they can 'talk shop'. (As an aside, that's why lay-offs can be so crushing to middle-aged people, because they feel that their identity has been destroyed by no fault of their own. It's like a part of them died in a random act of violence.)
But what about the critics from the 'personal responsibility' school of thought? "It's your friggin' life, so take control of it! You can't change your workplace, so don't blame others for your own shortcomings!" Well, my only response is that the forces from one's environment can often overcome one's own willpower or determination. Sure, there are hardy individuals who can tolerate a wretched work life but still manage to maintain love and compassion in their personal lives, but those are rare exceptions. We are not nearly as in control of our thoughts, emotions, or desires as we'd like to believe—our subconscious brains are so susceptible to the influences of our environment, and since the workplace is the environment in which we spend the majority of our time, it's nearly impossible to avoid getting affected by its undesirable qualities.
Yes, it is possible to separate work and personal lives, to be an amoral bottom-line cut-throat competitive money-grubbing drone at work and then come home and transform into the most loving, compassionate, empathetic husband or wife, father or mother. But such cases are extremely rare. Only psychopaths can commit horrific acts by day and still manage to maintain a seemingly-healthy personal life at night (think about how many family members of serial killers told authorities that they had no idea that their loved one was such a brutal monster).
For most normal people, how they feel at work will carry over into how they feel at night after they return home. Think about how many fewer kids would get yelled at for trivial infractions if their parents didn't feel so powerless and stifled at their jobs and thus didn't need to lash out in a display of power and dominance? Think about how many more spouses would get loving intimate contact if their loved ones weren't so jaded from their 9-to-5 grind that they can only sit in front of the TV drooling until they fall asleep in a stupor. Think about how many elderly parents now banished to nursing homes would get better affection from their now-grown children if they weren't so busy focusing on how to back-stab their competition in corporate politics.
My plea for a more compassionate work environment
So here comes my idealistic-sounding plea for improving modern society:
Employers should make it a top priority to ensure that their workplace is conducive to supporting personal integrity, altruism, high moral standards, and overall job satisfaction, because not only will employees be more loyal and productive, but just as importantly, they will carry that positive mood back home every night and be more likely to lead more happy and fulfilling personal lives as well.
Unfortunately, I don't have any concrete ideas for how to make empathy and compassion 'marketable' in a capitalist sense, how to make it so that big corporations or government institutions or hospitals or law firms have the proper incentives to treat their employees well, so that the good will can trickle down to benefit their families and other loved ones. In economic terms, the personal lives of employees and their family members are externalities that the free market doesn't properly account for. For instance, there is no direct incentive for Acme Co. to make it so that Joe's son doesn't hate his father (other than the fact that it might decrease Joe's productivity at work, which isn't too horrible, since if his 'numbers' drop too much, then he can simply be fired and replaced with some snotty kid who just graduated from college).
In an ideal world where we're all robots, it doesn't matter if Joe is a philander or wife-beater or gambling booze-hound at home; as long as he does his job well, then he is a valuable asset to his organization. But in the real world where we're humans, if employers don't take seriously the paramount importance of fostering a work environment that enables people to feel good about themselves and to take home those feelings of good will, then modern society will be further plagued with middle-class diseases like personal depression, marital strife, estrangement from peers, and teenage delinquency, eventually leading to its possible downfall (yes, I know that these ailments plague the lower classes of society as well, but I'm only focusing on middle-class professionals in this article).
Currently, there are various coping mechanisms to improve the personal lives of middle-aged, middle-class people, such as:
However, in my view, improving the work environment can have far greater benefits than these aforementioned remedies, simply because people spend more time at work doing their jobs than doing anything else in their lives. Going to church once a week or visiting your shrink once a month or splurging on a huge family vacation once a year can't possibly make up for being in a terrible work environment for 8 to 10 hours almost every single day. Positive change must start at the workplace, if we want to maintain not only a materially wealthy but also a mentally healthy modern society.
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Last modified: 2010-10-05