Health could be defined in a practical sense as a reason for being, or supportive of life. In Order for work to be healthy it has to be meaningful and life-sustaining. Work should build us up, not tear us down. Meaningful work is not always healthy. For example, crime, terrorism, or the work required to build an implement for using drugs could be meaningful but very unhealthy and destructive. Meaningful work that is destructive to oneself or others, or conflicts with our core values is not healthy. In other words meaningful work is not always healthy, but healthy work is always meaningful, so our goal in “Healthy Work” should be to find work that is 1) meaningful and 2) builds up life.
Healthy work sustains and builds up life- in individuals, families, and communities, and means something. Work that isn’t meaningful can’t be healthy. Work without meaning is like a road which leads to nowhere. If something is meaningless, it isn’t healthy or unhealthy, it's nothing but a void. When we work to simply do a good job, for self-satisfaction, to provide for our family, or for ourselves, for a cause we care about, to be in spiritual communion with God, or arguably even for a momentary hedonistic impulse to buy or enjoy a pleasurable experience, work is meaningful and healthy. Motivations change and vary. When we work to save money for travel or other things, this is meaningful and healthy. There are many ways for work to be meaningful, and thus healthy.
Some may attach significance to the actual craftsmanship of work, the mental and physical act of work itself, which can be very meaningful. Some may have an end financial goal in mind in their efforts, so the work becomes healthy. Regardless, meaningful and life-sustaining work is healthy because it is motivating and gives us something to focus our minds, wills, and effort and it strengthens our spirit. It is the spark that sets the fire of work in motion and sustains the life of work. Work that has no meaning cannot, by its very nature, strengthen our spirit or sustain us and our life, because this type of work has no basis in the connection between cause and effect. Work without meaning is dead.
When I was a child my parents bought me a set of books on various virtues, such as discipline, character, honesty, and other values. Each book would tell the story of certain famous person in history, such as George Washington, or Louis Pasteur, or Martin Luther King Jr. and the book would describe a character trait the featured person was particularly known for, and how we should try to emulate that character trait in our lives. These books had a big impact on me. One way to look at work, a particularly healthy way, is to look at work as an opportunity to build character and virtue. This might not be the only way to approach work, but it is a particularly healthy way to find meaning through work because it is self-validated, meaning if you choose to work to become more self-disciplined for example, and this is your primary way of finding meaning in your work, no one can take away this meaning from you. This virtue-driven spark will sustain you when your work gets hard. Character driven work is its own reward.
In an interview with podcast host Tim Ferris, 4- Star General Stanley McChristal, a man US Defense Secretary Robert Gates called "perhaps the finest warrior and leader of men in combat I (have) ever met", said that in order to apply the lessons he learned in successfully serving in the military for many years, workers should overcome fear by doing what scares them. This type of meaningful work similarly centers around character growth. General McChristal’s concept fits well with what the psychiatrist Dr. Scott Peck said about life: Life gives us problems. We can work through life problems and become stronger or we can avoid them and let them become bigger problems. The point is to find meaning through work, and the motivation and health that comes with it. Character development is one way to do it.
It is thought that man began in Africa, and along the way evolved and changed. Regardless of your anthropological or evolutionary outlook, primitive man moved and worked to survive. This we know for certain. Sometime later, as man moved into a more settled and civilized state, he learned to store value in the form of coins, precious metals, or other types of money or valuable goods. Trade began and progress continued. Prosperity came from trade, but as man worked to create value and fulfill his survival needs, and later his desires, meaning was a given. Man worked to accomplish his purposes, whatever they might be, and in this he attached meaning to his work.
As society progressed, trades and crafts became more specialized. Henry Ford and other great inventors like Thomas Edison, or James Watt, were revolutionary in establishing the capitalist economy which helped to foster the economic conditions for increasing wealth. Adam Smith discovered what made nations financially successful and wrote about it in “The Wealth of Nations” and later in “A Theory of Moral Sentiments” he expounded on what was required for a society to make capitalism work for the common good. Industry developed further as did man’s appetite for consumption. Now in modernity we live fully within the crux of the consumption economy. Some men and some women work to participate as much as possible in the current consumption economy and some opt for a more ascetic lifestyle. Most fall somewhere in between meaningful minimalism and meaningful consumption.
Work done for accumulation, though common and understandable and even meaningful, can be troublesome. Work done for hierarchical rank or for the accumulation of stuff, stuff often not even genuinely desired can be a trap. In fact, man can spend his entire life working for something which is not something he really wants in the first place, simply because he is being manipulated by outside social forces. The sociologist Max Weber illustrated this in his metaphor of the “Iron Cage”, where he develops the concept of the modern man, working within the confines of a bureaucratic organization, and unclear why he is working, what he is working for, or what he is even doing with his life, or for that matter who he really is, spinning his wheels alone inside the iron cage, grasping at the ladder of hierarchical progress or for the accumulation of fleeting status symbols. Maybe he will be among the minority promoted within the Iron Cage, maybe he won’t. Regardless, his work often becomes an abstraction, isolated, and meaningless.
Small is beautiful. This is a common saying but is also the title of a business book by E.F. Schumacher called Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. This book offers a nice alternative to finding meaningful healthy work through smaller organizations, teams, and goals. Thinking small allows us to find great meaning in our work. We set out to learn a skill, develop a character trait, or complete a specific project. This happens within a positive closed feedback loop where we constantly push ourselves to improve and produce good meaningful work. Ironically, technology and the accumulation and democratization of knowledge has made this approach much more feasible to the masses in the developed world. Anyone can participate in the “small is beautiful” approach. The trainer can organize his systems better in cloud spreadsheets, the baker can market for free on social media, and the community bank can conduct business virtually, reducing salary costs.
Technology and Knowledge have had a significant effect in destabilizing the bureaucratic structures of old, whether it be the state or the corporation- those of Weber’s Iron cage, though these often leviathan organizations still play a dominant role in our society. It is now possible for every man to use technology to improve his lot in life. The laptop is a type of factory in the modern era and the internet makes knowledge and education available to all who seek it, though there are no guarantees that anywhere close to a majority will. Ironically, as a matter of fact, with the ubiquitous and non-linear growth of technology over time, the gap between those who work with drive, rationality, and meaning and those who don’t may grow even greater, because those with the intelligence, drive, and connections to succeed may be able to leverage these new tools to an even greater degree of economic success. Technology is available for all to use, and some are using it to self-actualize, but many more are being left behind.
It seems as though that’s what happening in most, but not all cases in modern America, as the successful become even more successful. Even so, many who came from underprivileged or rudimentary backgrounds have used technology to leverage their minimal skills and talents and find life-sustaining health and meaning in their work. Generations ago, they may have been pushing a plow or standing on an assembly line all day, noble and good work, but much less rewarding than the self-directed work they’re engaged in today. The jury is still out on where technology and the so-called “knowledge revolution” will lead us.
Sometimes work is confusing. We know it’s good to work. We value it on a moral, ethical, and social level, but other than that we’re aren’t really sure why we’re working. Periods of time like this could be viewed as a season of work, like a season of nature. Winter is cold, dark, and dead, and at times our work may feel this way as well. Little meaning can seem to be found behind work. This is perfectly normal and even can be a chance for us to explore, make new connections, try new things, and have new experiences. We might decide to volunteer, or take on a unique project we’ve never done, just for the sake of the experience. This type of exploratory work can be healthy too. We can start to learn more about ourselves, what type of work we enjoy or don’t enjoy, and we can just enjoy the process of working and learning.
The Harvard Business Review offers some solid advice for those who are at a crossroads in work and looking for a different direction: In an older paradigm the model for a career was to “plan & implement” but with the changes going on in the world of work it might be necessary to engage in a strategy of “test & learn” instead. Try new things, experiment, look for new connections between people, places, or skills. See where this exploration leads you. Work should be meaningful for it to be healthy and the meaning behind work may change often over a lifetime. Work done responsibly and with an effort to create value, sustain life, and not hurt anyone is a good thing and an admirable pursuit in and of itself.