To Work is to be Human

How many of us completely separate our working lives with all the other parts? I would venture the majority of us and it is easy to see why. Most of us travel to work and then undertake activities for someone else for which we are paid. So that’s enforced physical displacement from home, allocating a fixed block of time (officially at least) in our day, and fulfilling our part of a contract by doing something specific that we are obligated to do. These three forms of enforced separation — space, time, and activity — appear completely natural because we are at work and that is what being “at work” entails. We don’t even think about it, it’s just the way it is and part of life. The popular term work-life balance only serves to reinforce this idea, that they are disparate in some way.

But if we are so used to separating that part of our lives bound up with work that we no longer actively think about it anymore is it any wonder that other parts of our personalities become separated when get to the office? To explain, this physical, temporal and active separation we undergo when we get to our workplaces starts to unconsciously incorporate other forms of separation too: emotional, ethical or moral. We start to find that we think, talk and act differently at work to the way we do at home. Certain work situations demand an element of formality not needed at the dinner table and we are probably more serious in our dealings with colleagues than we would otherwise be. Suggesting that we have two different personae, a working one and a non-working one, is dangerous but when you think about it not so far fetched. How often have you heard or noticed that a friend or colleague is a completely different person away from the office. You may even notice this in yourself. One might argue that it doesn’t really matter, extending the phrase “I don’t take may work home with me” to mean I don’t take my workplace behaviours home either.

I would argue that it does matter, very much so. We spend the greatest part of the time we are awake at work — a rough calculation based on a standard 5 day working week suggests around a third of our waking hours are spent there, not including breaks, commuting and so on. We logically therefore spend much of our lives acting differently to how we otherwise would like to. Who hasn’t put on an act of some sort with colleagues or customers at some point? Not being true to ourselves in the way we interact with other people is draining and probably not healthy. This goes deeper than than our simple communications with others at work, however. By accepting that the workplace “us” is somehow different to the other “us” that everyone else sees, we also accept that our values, things that are important to us, or views can be left at the front door in the morning. Ask yourself a question “how much of who I am gets left at home each day?” This is a complex problem and your answer may change through your working life. For example, you might work for a company that allows you to express yourself freely, with great colleagues and little stress that operates in a sector you find unethical. Or your employer does something you believe in, but your personal working arrangements or culture are at odds with your personality forcing you to be different in order to get the job done.

There are many societal and psychological reasons for why we separate our lives in this way, and we are complex creatures after all! It may suit certain facets of our makeup to act differently in a professional environment. The notion of humanising business is a growing area of academic research. If you take the view that companies are but an expression of their employees then it is probably not a good reflection of our society, given perceptions of business and corporates in particular. Imagine what employment would be like if we were allowed to be our true selves at work. It would surely make us happier and more productive. This could extend to happy, productive and good companies, sectors, industries, society. (A problem with this view is that, every society has angry, selfish and mean people in it so who would they work for? But anyway.)

In an era where people are working longer hours and are generally more unhappy in their jobs, this separation between our normal selves and working selves is widening. To narrow that gap maybe take a moment and think about how much of yourself you compromise when you turn the key in the door as you leave for work each morning. Try it. You may be surprised.