The number of people living alone in the US is the highest it’s ever been and it is estimated that over 25% of the US population has no close friends at all. Depression is the leading cause of disability claims in the US and about 1/4 of the population struggles with mental illness at some point throughout each year. The country as a whole spends approximately $500 billion dollars annually (yes billion) on treatments related to mental illness. Men struggle with addiction and drug and alcohol abuse more than women, while women struggle with depression and anxiety more frequently. Both American Men and Women are trying to understand their role and place in the new globalized economy. Many are dropping out of the workforce altogether, placing a strain on government budgets for welfare. The US deficit sits at $18,966,715,325,873 trillion dollars in 2016. Working - class middle aged white Americans are dying faster than any other group in the country. Surveys tell us that Americans as a whole are not optimistic about the future. No matter which way you spin it, something is definitely amiss in America.
Though we live longer and have much more material wealth and consumer goods than previous generations, and though the unemployment rate is low, 5-6% as of January 2016, we aren’t necessarily improving our overall quality of life. The U.S. Declaration of Independence proclaimed “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as a fundamental opportunity afforded to American citizens but it never guaranteed we’d all be happy. Despite the US economy being the largest in the world, and despite having one of the highest GDP rates in the world, we seem to not be getting everything right. We are unsure about the future, unsure about our country’s direction, and unsure about the meaning of it all, including our work. Wages are stagnant and have been for many years, free trade deals have de-industrialized the US economy and along with morally questionable social policies they have combined to destabilize working families.
Many families would prefer to have one parent working while they have small children, but due to many factors feel like they cannot make it with one income, so both parents work, which puts strains on marriages and families. 1/2 to 3/4 of working class children are born to unmarried parents, and research shows us these children are more likely to struggle in life in many ways. Public, religious, and civic life all have declining participation rates, highlighted extensively in the recent literary non-fiction classics Bowling Alone and Coming Apart by political scientist Charles Murray. These and other economic and social changes are contributing significantly to a workplace challenge we are persistently running into in American life as a whole as well: moral and ethical confusion, and a decline in social trust and social cohesion.
Who are we? Who is right? What is right? Why should we work in the first place, if we don’t have to? Why is it not ok to outsource jobs, expatriate capital gains, have many children while living on welfare without being married, pollute the environment, engage in perpetual war, sell unscrupulously, punish small business owners with bureaucratic red tape, invade consumers’ privacy, or do anything else which might be considered immoral, distasteful, or unethical, if there is no such thing as a universal “good” anymore. Someone said once that America was more like a business than a country. Unfortunately, we may be seeing the fruits of that painful truth come to a head in this political season with the rise of populist anger realized in the ascendancy of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Most Americans, though they may not know exactly what’s happening, or even have time to investigate deeply, know something isn’t quite right.
Both political parties seem to have neglected the reinvestment this country needs in its economic and social well-being in favor of laisse faire economic and social policies. Maybe we need to shake things up and work at figuring out who we are, and what the constitution says. The framers of the US constitution, inspired mainly by enlightenment thinker John Locke, among others, and by the uniquely Christian moral sense of human dignity, set us on a path which created the strongest country in the world. But they also warned that freedom requires respect for the law, personal responsibility, and moral character. John Adams, the 2nd President of the US, once wrote: “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to any other.” One has to ponder how Adam’s thought would sit in the zeitgeist of today, which is wholescale rejection of any universal moral standards.
In his exceptional book, The Righteous Mind, liberal and democratic thinker and writer Jonathan Haidt, admirably went to extraordinary lengths to bridge the political divide in the US. People as a whole tend to lean more liberal or more conservative, but according to Haidt, we can get into trouble when we don’t balance out values which work together to create a cohesive culture that makes sense. These values are care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Liberals tend to rate very highly on care and fairness whereas conservatives tend to rate more moderately on all 6. Either way, we should try to look at the big picture and incorporate all 6 of these values in our lives as citizens, and make the fairest and most balanced judgments we can about what is the best way to live and to work.
Healthy Work is not about politics, but Healthy Work is about putting the “good” back into work. Unfortunately, making a statement about what is good has become political as the country has become more partisan, multi-cultural, and polarized, because what is good to one person might be bad to another. So again, we must look inside ourselves as individuals and as a nation and declare what is good. Healthy work is first and foremost about what is good: good for the worker, the employer, the entrepreneur, and for society. Healthy Work is a clear step forward in the right direction. Healthy Work is an unintentionally polarizing but purposefully balanced assessment about what is good when it comes to work, and the best way to get there. So let’s review:
- Work is good.
- Work creates value and fulfills human needs & desires.
- Work should create real value and do no harm.
- Work should be meaningful and life-sustaining in order to be healthy.
- Work should integrate the mind, body, & spirit.
I’ve had interesting jobs in my life. I got my first job when I was 14, going door-to-door in the neighborhood to ask neighbors if I could help them with yard work. Technically I had been working since I was young, helping out around the house and helping my Dad in the yard. Later on, I worked at Taco Bell, K-Mart, Hardees, Little Caesar’s Pizza, as a lifeguard, at a local gym, doing construction, at Maples Industries in the Maintenance Department, Chuck’s BBQ, the Student Activities Center at Auburn University, and at the YMCA, before graduating from graduate school in Atlanta and starting my own business. Along the way I did other odd jobs here and there also.
What did I learn from my early work life? I learned to be empathetic with people working jobs which are not glamorous and in which they have to deal with a lot of BS for low wages! I also learned that I was motivated to go to college so I could do more interesting and meaningful work, and frankly so I wouldn’t have to have a job I hated my whole life. I also learned that I needed to become more motivated and disciplined because I was really not that way naturally, but regardless I always enjoyed working.
Of all the work I’ve done, I enjoyed working at Chuck’s BBQ in Auburn the best, other than my current business. This job at Chuck’s, from ages 19-20, where I eventually became a short-lived assistant manager until I messed up on something I had responsibility for, allowed me independence at work and allowed me to learn about customer service and about taking initiative. I was still immature at the time, but I enjoyed the fact that it was a small business and that I knew the owner very well and he seemed to care about me. To me this sense of being cared for made a big difference in how I viewed the work. I felt cared for, so I cared more about the work. In the following paragraphs, I’ve selected 3 companies which I admire as case studies in Healthy Work based on the values I laid out in earlier essays. There are of course many other companies which could have been chosen but one thing all of these companies have in common is that they treat their employees like family.
I consider myself a capitalist. Through extensive study of government and history, as well as through my many fortunate travel experiences of learning, I strongly prefer imperfect capitalism over any other system and the evidence clearly says it works the best for all parties involved. That being said, capitalism isn’t a perfect system, particularly if the legal and political system is corrupt. So we need the rule of law. Just as important, less connected and talented citizens in our communities can also get left behind as the economically and intellectually successful self-segregate geographically and socially year after year, extrapolating out eventually into a very divided nation engaged in a winner-take-all Darwinian survival of the fittest.
My own work philosophy is one I would call “community capitalism” or “Christian capitalism”, where judgements are made, and standards, expectations, and boundaries are enforced, but at the end of the day there is a sense of transcendent loving purpose and where extensive patience and kindness is shown in the work environment, including in the immediate geographical community. With all of the tumult and upheaval in the US economic and social world, work should be a refuge, a place which brings out the best in everyone and allows growth, belonging, and contribution. The following are companies which I admire, and which in my estimation uphold the values of Healthy Work.
When I first read the story of Patagonia, it struck a nerve with me because I love the outdoors. Crucially, Patagonia offers employees a sense of belonging and a sense of a greater purpose connected to the natural world. The founder, Yvon Chouinard, got his start in small business making rock climbing equipment and eventually founded the outdoor equipment and clothing company. Chouinard committed from the beginning to make Patagonia a fantastic place to work and as an avowed environmentalist he attracted talented employees and partners who shared his worldview and wanted to work for a company which supported environmental causes. Some perks include company “tithing” for environmental activism and paying employees to take breaks and work on local environmental projects. Patagonia also switched to using all organic cotton when they research showed that it was better for the environment.
Many Americans don’t share the same concerns for the environment that Patagonia does, but that’s not the point. Patagonia is offering work which is connected to bigger things, like the health of the planet, and there are plenty of talented workers who want to work for a company like that. Being branded as a company which cares about the environment certainly helps sales as well. Though the company is set up as a private “B Corp”, or public benefit corporation, and doesn’t issue common stock, it brought in over $600 million dollars in sales in 2013 and is growing fast. As CEO Rose Marcario said recently in a Fast Company interview, “You can't really split your working life from the life you live every day as a person.”
Chik-Fil-A is closed on Sundays. Anyone who is from Georgia where the restaurant chain started could tell you that. Because it’s such a rare thing in the non-stop 24/7 cutthroat market in the US, the company’s focus on Christian family values and care for employees and customers, and for simply taking a day of rest, has made it extremely popular in the conservative South and beyond. Any visit to the chain will bring you 3 consistent things: 1) Cleanliness 2) Good Food 3) Polite and Considerate Service.
I know several Special Olympic athletes who have had jobs at Chik-Fil-A and I can tell you from this personal experience that the company has an unparalleled culture of doing things the right way. In an age of hedge funds and corporations sweeping in to lay off 20,000 employees just before Christmas to save a few bucks, this company is a breath of fresh air. Chik-Fil-A demonstrates Healthy Work because they treat their employees and customers with dignity, expecting the best from their workers, but caring about their wellbeing and quality of life. Though the company’s official slogan is “We didn’t invent the chicken, Just the chicken sandwich”, their unofficial motto seems to be - doing things the right way, inside the store and out.
Lodge Cast Iron
The National Cornbread Festival, which involves a cornbread eating contest, a beauty pageant, and a cornbread cooking competition, takes place in South Pittsburgh, TN annually. The festival was the brainchild of the Lodge family, owners of the Lodge Cast Iron Co. since the 19th century. The company started as a small foundry in 1896 and has since ebbed and flowed but has maintained its presence as one of the biggest employers in South Pittsburgh (pop. 3000) and Marion County, TN. To many, cast iron is synonymous with southern cooking and with Appalachia, so with the recent resurgence of interest in local cooking in the US, the company has taken off again with higher sales. Still, the company has not forgotten its roots or connections to the small town of 20 churches, 2 bars, a Wal-Mart (the biggest employer) and a moderately busy main street.
There was a time in American life when most businesses were owned by local citizens. Owners invested profits back into the communities they lived in. Owners and citizens lived together, worked together, worshipped together, and played together. Though financial derivatives and common ownership of public corporations have created great wealth for a small minority of Americans, it has a come at a cost. The type of community fostered by companies like Lodge has been lost to a large degree. Lodge is a unique case of Healthy Work because of its emphasis on being part of the local community. Many people in America are anonymous- at home, in their neighborhood, and at work. People come and go to work without any connection to the city or community they work in. Atlanta author and businessman Sam Williams addressed the possible negative outcomes of this anonymity in his book, CEO as Urban Statemen, when he discussed the powerful change agents business leaders can be when they get involved in local issues. Oftentimes though, business leaders choose to ignore local community concerns to significant detriment.
Lodge is only a small company, and I’m biased in my affection for Lodge because I grew up 30 minutes from South Pittsburgh in Scottsboro, AL and also because I love cornbread and cast iron cooking, but it’s an organization I admire. They are pivotal part of their local community, enriching the working lives of many people. Healthy Work requires caring about the products and services being sold, and about the investment in the surrounding community.
The preceding case studies are idealistic but most certainly realistic examples of what the working world can be like. The following Principles sum up the series on the topic of Healthy Work, and I hope you have found it to be inspiring and useful.
Practical Principles of Healthy Work
- Work should be celebrated as good in its own right.
- Work should be done to create value and fulfill human needs and desires.
- Work should create value while doing no harm.
- Work should be meaningful and sustaining of human life in order to be healthy.
- Work should uphold the right values.
- Work should integrate the mind, body, and the spirit.
Please email me with any comments, questions, or to schedule a speaking engagement.
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