"Arbeit Macht Frei." Work sets you free.
I’ve written and deleted these words at least five times. They first appeared in the title of an 1873 German novel – only to be turned into a slogan by the Nazis.
The Holocaust isn’t some literary tool that you can use to make a point about life in 2020. I am very aware of the import of these words, and the danger of invoking them lightly. Yet, nothing I can think of captures the horror and perversity unfolding all around us right now more accurately than these words inscribed on the gates of the Auschwitz and Dachau labour camps.
The mantra of work as freedom, or work as a magical route to happiness, has proved incredibly resilient. But, as the coronavirus crisis is exposing all over again: for billions of people, work is none of these things. For those people, even in 2020, work is a daily tightrope walk between indignity and survival.
Read this story in one minute
Since India went into lockdown in March, stranded migrant workers have died from exhaustion or in accidents as they walked thousands of kilometres back to their villages. E-commerce delivery staff have been beaten up by the police for doing their job. A truck driver ferrying potatoes was shot for refusing to bribe the police. But such examples of cruelty haven’t been limited to the world’s poor or the global south.
Journalists have been forced to report from virus hotspots without protection; healthcare workers have died because of insufficient supply of proper protective equipment, or as in at least one case in the UK, because they were denied it. In the Netherlands, staff of the national airline KLM had to watch the incredulous spectacle of their employer considering an increase in the CEO’s bonus to 100% of his salary, even as colleagues were laid off in the thousands. In the US, millions have been furloughed across corporations, with pitiful severance cheques and cold, curt communication.
The stories go on and on, proving just how badly broken our relationship with work is. Perhaps it’s time for what my colleague Rutger Bregman calls "a utopia for realists": universal income, "a monthly allowance, enough to live on, without having to lift a finger."
But while we dream of that utopia, we must also tend to the difficult and urgent task of repairing what we currently have. And it begins with pushing for a new language of work, based not on happiness but humanity.
It’s the economy, stupid
For as long as I can remember, the gospel that happiness should be a byproduct of the work you do has struck me as a con, and not just because happiness itself is a notoriously slippery idea.
Growing up in a small town in eastern India before the Indian economy was liberalised, with a father who worked in a steel plant and a mother who was a nurse, I never believed that work had anything to do with happiness. You were grateful to have work, but there was no romanticism attached to it. It was a means to an end – a respectable means to an end if you were lucky.
It was only years later, when I started working as a business journalist, with capitalism in full throttle and corporations globally fighting "the war for talent", that I realised just how much of the "happy workplaces" kool-aid we’d drunk. And it had all but erased from our minds the fact that most jobs in the world are not within a mile of offering happiness as they don’t guarantee even basic human dignity to begin with.
More than 60% of the world’s working population – close to two billion people – toil away in the informal sector, condemned to unhealthy, sometimes deadly conditions and no social protection. In 2019, the International Labour Organization estimated that "stress, excessively long working hours and disease contribute to the deaths of nearly 2.8 million workers every year". All the road accidents in the world kill fewer than half of that number. Not to mention the additional 374 million people who "get injured or fall ill because of their jobs".
Even in the formal sector, dwindling job security, loss of bargaining power, skewed policy priorities, and rampant income disparity all mean work is a source of chronic stress and unhappiness for millions.
Running through all of this is a shared logic: "It’s economics, stupid."
Economics allocates us our place in the giant food chain called the economy. And its logic is wonderfully devoid of morality: there’s nothing wrong with bankers earning more than doctors, because the financial sector just has "a different economics" than the one doctors serve. It is economics that tells us that, actually, inequality is a great thing because it helps us build efficient systems devoted to the idyll of "growth".
Meritocracy and Friday beers
In the formal sector, this system built on inequality is often dressed up with a nifty name: meritocracy. Premised on the idea of there being a level playing field, a meritocracy is supposed to keep everyone happy by promising that people only advance on their merit. In practice, pure meritocracies are a charade. In most societies, success is a mixture of genetics, social status, financial inheritance and dumb luck.
The modern workplace has strived hard to establish meritocracy as fair and just. But research shows that it actually makes people more selfish, less self-critical and more prone to acting in discriminatory ways.
Because there isn’t room enough for everyone at the top, employers have invented an alternative pathway to happiness: luxury perks such as free smoothies, nap rooms, and #BringYourPetsToWorkDay. Meritocracy is a clique, but hey, Friday after-work beers are for everyone!
The problem is, even this frothy form of happiness isn’t working. While companies burn through many millions of dollars in the pursuit of "happier" and "more engaged" employees, the returns remain abysmal.
In the US, for instance, just over 30% of employees in a Gallup survey were found to be engaged at work. Worldwide, the percentage was less than half of that. This mirrors the rise of my favourite work-related term: "bullshit jobs" – jobs defined as "pointless and without merit according to the person holding [them]". In a British poll in 2015, 37% said their job made no meaningful contribution to the world while 13% said they weren’t sure. In the Netherlands, 40% of the respondents believed their jobs had no reason to exist.
The real reason employers care about happiness is … productivity
Why should the pursuit of happiness at work collapse on itself? Because it was never really about happiness.
As I’ve written about before, it is the obsession with personal productivity that triggered the tsunami of work-related distress to begin with. But in a perverse twist, employers now talk about the importance of keeping workers happy because it is good for productivity.
Take the "workplace wellness" initiatives which trace their origin to decades-old employee assistance programmes (EAPs). EAPs were a response to – among other things – alcoholism among employees. And according to the Employee Assistance Professional Association, their purpose is to address employees’ "productivity" and "job performance".
The same productivity obsession underlies almost everything employers do today. The internet is brimming with gung-ho projections of improved productivity – 20%! 30! 50%! – if only employers were to invest in the latest HR trick.
Even during a massive humanitarian crisis, some bosses want to measure their employees’ performance every 15 minutes by keeping tabs via the camera on their computer, so that "no employee can cheat you".
Seven ways work can get more humane after the pandemic
We didn’t ask for a great reset in the form of a pandemic, but we’ve got ourselves one anyway. As my colleague Eric Holthaus wrote, after the pandemic is over, "restoring the status quo shouldn’t be our goal ... We have to create a new system".
What could the new system – a more humane system – look like in the context of work? I imagine seven broad shifts.
1. Focus more on work than on the workplace: Almost everything that employers do today in the name of employee happiness is built around the workplace at its centre. Offering frills in the office is much easier than fixing the big structural and systemic problems, such as a mismatch between skills and tasks, bullying, harassment, sexism, favouritism, and bypassing inclusion and diversity in decision making. These are the issues almost always at the root of people’s disgruntlement, not the lack of a sleep pod at work or uninspiring snacks.
In the post-pandemic world, the primacy of the workplace in shaping organisational culture has to end, firstly because the grip of the workplace on workers itself has loosened, but also because, as Gallup’s CEO Jim Clifton said presciently: "What companies will inevitably find is that the only way to make a person happy is to give them a job that matches well to their strengths, a boss who cares about their development, and a mission that gives them feelings of purpose. The belief that something gets better when you come and do your job, that’s as happy as you can be."
2. Empower people for radical dialogue: Five years ago, Dan Price, the founder of the financial services company Gravity, was living the good life, secure in the belief that he was doing right by his employees. Until one day, an angry staffer accused him of ripping him off. The exchange sent Price down an unthinkable path: he sold all his assets, took a massive pay cut, and raised the minimum wage for all 120 of his employees to $70,000.
Price was called a "communist" with a doomed future, but earlier this year, it was reported that his business and his employees were doing remarkably well. Price measures his success not in terms of profit alone but things like whether more of his employees are able to afford having children: before the changes, the team had between zero and two babies born per year; since then, they’ve had more than 40 babies. Also, earlier, less than 1% of them were able to buy a home; the figure now is more than 10%.
Of course, most companies won’t go through this kind of fairytale transformation unless they get intentional about listening to their people and acting on what they hear. For that, they will need to create safe spaces that encourage radically honest dialogue – no more pointless surveys, feedback forms, and chatbots – and then back it up with policy that guarantees action.
3. Abandon the language of war: According to Clifton of Gallup, corporate bosses can’t handle the "softer" side of management. Business is war. Emotions aren’t good in the battlefield. Outsource all the mushy stuff to a "chief happiness officer".
Clifton adds: "The truth is many CEOs have been repelled by this idea that management must incorporate more heart to be successful. But now many are saying, ‘come a little bit closer, my dear.’ And this is because CEOs are desperate to win. They’re beginning to recognise that an authentically caring culture provides a clear and sustainable competitive advantage."
He is right – except that it’s impossible to build an "authentically caring culture" without first shaking off the preoccupation with “winning”. In the post-pandemic world, businesses will need to lose their infatuation with the language of war.
Jason Fried, co-founder of the hugely successful software maker Basecamp, puts it this way: "Business is not war. Don’t *target* customers. Don’t *fight* for talent. Don’t *capture* a market. Don’t hire *head-hunters*. Don’t pick your *battles*. Don’t make a *killing*. Eschew the language of war. Put your mind in a positive place."
4. Empower caring leaders: With the boundaries between office and home dissolving, the pressure to maintain two distinct personalities that so many experienced in the pre-pandemic world is also receding. In the new world, employers will need to be ready for employees demanding to be seen as messy, complex individuals who live messy, complex lives – not as machines who can leave their unproductive or inconvenient parts at home, or stop themselves from bringing up "awkward" topics at work because doing so is not "professional".
To steer workplaces through this change, employers will have to create and empower a cadre of caring leaders. That means valuing empathy as a leadership trait and incentivising empathetic behaviour by fostering a culture of open and honest conversation that helps surface such behaviour, rather than treating empathy like yet another variable that they can "measure" and "optimise".
5. Invest in "decent digiwork": The pandemic has been a shot in the arm for digital work. But, says future of work expert Maria Mexi, it has put the low-paid section of gig workers attached to the digital economy – such as ride-hailing and food delivery personnel – under enormous strain. After healthcare workers, "gig workers lacking any or adequate access to employment-insurance benefits or sick leave are the hardest hit in the United States, Europe and Asia".
Mexi calls for a model of "decent digiwork", characterised by self-respect and dignity, security and equal opportunity, representation and voice for every worker in the digital economy.
"It is also about defining a ‘digital responsibility by default’ model – an entirely different mindset in society as to the role of governments and the private sector, in ensuring labour standards are updated to respond better to the evolving reality of digital workplaces."
6. Take personal responsibility for our role in an unjust system: After the pandemic, Mexi adds, we will need to protect especially those who survive at the margins, including low-paid workers who stand to gain little from government relief packages.
That leads directly to us. You and me.
It’s easy to criticise someone like Jeff Bezos for exploiting labour, wrote my colleague Nesrine Malik in a recent column. "But all around us are examples of otherwise good and fair-minded people who have been negligent in their duties to those who work for them." Babysitters, cooks, cleaners.
The current suspension of routine has jolted us into seeing just how many people fell through the cracks without any safety net. "But we are the safety net. All our obligations towards those who work on a casual basis are still there, they’re just not written down or enforceable."
The pandemic is a loud wake-up call for us to stop perpetuating the same inhumane structures that we complain about.
7. Outgrow growth: By bringing the global economy to its knees, the coronavirus is teaching us that we need to move beyond modern society’s greatest organising principle: its pursuit of growth at all costs.
As economic anthropologist Jason Hickel argues: "Beyond a certain point, the relationship between GDP and human wellbeing completely breaks down." National leaders such as Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand have already promised to abandon GDP growth in favour of wellbeing.
"People are ready for something different," Hickel claims.
But here’s the operative question: will the giant enterprises that de facto run the world underwrite this vision of "wellbeing" for everyone? Or will they torpedo it by sticking to their old habits?
I asked Samira Rafaela, one of the youngest members of the European Parliament, what she thought of the farce at KLM and Air France, where a pay raise for the CEO was proposed while laying off thousands of workers and receiving a €2-4 billion bailout from the Dutch government.
"I was really baffled when I read about it," she told me during our recent transnational chat on the pandemic and inequality. "It shows a real disconnect with what many people, including their own employees, are thinking and what most of them are going through."
But, Rafaela added, big shifts in thinking about inequality tend to take off after great crises. Most significantly after 1945, when many European countries started building welfare states. "I think this is not only an opportunity but a responsibility for all of us to use the momentum to change for [the] better."
The Second World War offers us a painful metaphor for work today. But it’s also a reminder that we can move fast and fix things.
Correction: An earlier version of the article stated that KLM considered a 100% increase in its CEO’s pay. This is incorrect. The proposal was to increase the CEO’s maximum bonus from 75% of his salary to 100% of his salary. We regret the error.About the images The still lives in Big Plans, a series by Leipzig-based photographer Philotheus Nisch, deal with the notion of stress in relation to planning. Common tools, hands and office supplies designed to help structure our working life become animated: punching, squeezing, and sweating. As our need to plan and calculate, predict and envision is actually deeply perturbed, the irony deployed in these images provides a critical distance from the daily turmoil we might be plunged in. It gently reminds us to zoom out by offering perspectives outside our immediate periphery. (Myrabelle Charlebois, image editor)