What are the Components of a Healthy Work Environment?


* This is the 5th of 6 essays on Healthy Work.  Links to the other essays can be found here.

Lawrence:  “What would you do if you had a million dollars?   
Peter: “Nothing, absolutely nothing.”   

And with that the protagonist Peter Gibbons of one of the most famous modern American comedies, Office Space, sums up the way many people feel about work these days.  Office Space is iconic because it struck a nerve.  We often work for corporations owned by stockholders we’ll never meet, and which are run by executives and managers who often aren’t loyal to the companies they work for and could care less about their employees, while we do mind-numbing and menial work.   We are treated at times like cogs in a machine, because often we are.  Technology has routinized many jobs to the point where people aren’t needed anymore or if they are needed, they are needed much less.  These modern ailments in work can be demoralizing and demotivating. 

Our entire economy is based largely on consumption- what people want, not what they need.  To survive, all a person needs is a place to sleep, some food, and health care.  Anything on top of that is up to the person.  People want different things and it’s hard to say how many things is enough.  In my book, Movement & Meaning, I went to great lengths to describe in detail how stressed out and miserable people can become living a life of insatiable desire for material goods and experiences.   Again, this brings to mind Max Weber’s analogy of the Iron Cage, or the “Ring” of The Lord of the Rings.  The precious, precious ring and its never-ending circle of desperation, dissatisfaction, and despair!  Wants aren’t bad, we all have wants, but how we handle our wants will determine whether our labor builds us up or tears us down. 

So then what are we to do?  How do we bring humanity, courage, and connection back to work?   If we really have plenty for the most part what are we to do next?  The industrial revolution is winding down, particularly in America.  It’s time to move on.  Even though we are living through exponentially non-linear changes in work, society, and culture, changes which we often aren’t aware of and have difficulty conceptualizing, these dramatic changes offer us a chance if we aren’t frozen by fear and if we have the courage to take it. 

We have more freedom to work in the best way we see fit.  Hierarchies and systems of control are breaking down.  This will not be without consequences: the government, the ultra- wealthy, and the corporations will certainly grasp for more and more control.   When these efforts infringe upon our constitutional rights, we should organize and fight politically, so that we as Americans don’t lose our hard fought dignity to live free.  We don’t have to buy into consumerism, industrial control, and mindless conformity anymore.  We can instead reach for our highest spiritual potential as we live and labor.  Extraordinary change brings extraordinary opportunity.  Through discipline, through courage, through creativity, through charity, and through patience we can employ the components of healthy work in our organizations and in ourselves and create a better future.  

Aristotle taught us thousands of years ago that every person was like a city in miniature.  He wisely urged us to rule our “inner city” with Justice and Virtue just as a wise ruler would rule his own city well. If we could master ourselves, Aristotle believed, we could create a better future.  That’s what Healthy Work is about- mastering ourselves to create a better tomorrow.   Work is not about doing what is “natural” or about doing things the “way we were born.” Healthy work is about finding and using our highest potential, which is not the way we were born at all. 

When I was born, I was lazy.  When I was born, I had a temper.  When I was born, I was selfish.  When I was born, I was afraid.  When I was born, I was undisciplined.  When I was born, I was a child.  I can still be all of those things and I fight them every day, because I don’t want to be the way I was born.  I want to be better than that.  Healthy work is about being better.  As we’ve discussed in the previous essays, Healthy work is about:

  • Acknowledging that work is good and valuing it in ourselves and in other people.
  • Valuing the right things about work.
  • Creating productive value without doing harm.
  • Doing meaningful and life-sustaining labor.

As we strive to do these things in our work and as we strive to work healthily, there are signposts or components we can look to along the way to know we are heading in the right direction.   These components call on us to engage our entire being in our work, our Minds, Bodies, and Spirits, so that we can work in the healthiest way possible.   The components of Healthy Work are listed below. Pull out a journal and answer these questions about your work:

  1. Spiritual
    1. Purpose- Do we have a deep connection to our work?  What are we working for?  This can be as simple as developing greater inner character or working to support our family because we love them.
    2. Transcendence– Do we have sense that what we do in this life matters?  Can we get in touch with this through our work?  Do our values and ethics match up with the work we’re doing? If not, what can be changed?
    3. Community- How is our work connected to the people in our neighborhood, and city and to others who live and work around us?
    4. Family- Do we work in a way that is supportive of our families? Or are we allowing our work to act in a destructive way towards our family?

  1. Physical
    1. Natural light- How often do we see sunlight? Do we work in an environment where we have access to light? This is a huge factor in mental health.
    2. Nature- Do we have the time to get outside during the work day, and get sunlight and fresh air? If not, how can we incorporate nature into our work day?  It is not healthy to be indoors all of the time.
    3. Activity- Do we have a chance to be active during the work day?  Excessive sitting is destructive for health. 
    4. Food and water- Are healthy food and snacks available throughout the day?
    5. Noise- Is excessive, distracting, or unnecessary noise present in the work environment?

  1. Mental / Psychological

The hallmark of stressful work is responsibility with no control. No control equals heavy stress. In other words, if we cannot control a work situation, but we’re held responsible for how it turns out we are working in an unhealthy work environment.Our brains and minds were not made to work this way.We need to find ways specifically to cope and control our work environments as much as possible.

  1. Territory Focused- How can we think smaller? How can we develop teams? How can shift our work to a project basis? For example, I’m working on this project called “Healthy Work.”  A territory is a positive feedback loop.  Planting a garden, walking 3 miles per day, or writing an essay are all territory focused projects.  We give and we get something back in return- peace of mind.
  2. Cycles- Can we take breaks, celebrate small wins, and find balance in our work, living and working one day, week, month, and year at a time?
  3. Intellectually Challenging- Is the work we’re doing challenging us to think, to learn, to adapt, and to change for the better? If not, how can we find or create more engaging work?
  4. Safe- Are we free to respectfully speak our minds, practice our religions, and generally be ourselves in our work environments, as long as it is done in a professional way, free from harassment, intimidation, or groupthink?
  5. Productive- Are we producing work projects, achieving goals, and accomplishing valuable things that matter?
  6. Rewarding- How are we rewarding ourselves for a job well done, and how are we being rewarded?

Periodically, at least once a year, print out these questions and write out the answers.  Perform an “audit” of your work to see if you think it’s healthy.  If not, make some changes.  Again, working healthy is not about doing what’s “natural”, it’s about doing the best we can do. 

For the 6th and final essay on Healthy Work next week, we’ll look at some examples of how this plays out in the real world.

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Read Next: The Values of Healthy Work




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