Hayden Ramsay: Work at home: a whole new set of unknowns
Someone sent me an article this week on the number of professionals resigning from their roles (see “The Great Resignation: Millions of Aussies predicted to leave jobs”). It seems that after the experience of lockdown and working from home, a joyful return is not on the cards for everyone.
The article reflects on people’s experience of being overstretched by employers, unacknowledged, expected to do more and to do it all through back-to-back zoom sessions in spare bedrooms.
Why do we do work? One reason is it’s a bit like income tax: if most of us didn’t do it, all of us would suffer. But there must be more to it than that.
There’s a strong sense in the tradition that work is good for you personally, and not just for the community. Ideally, work uses your skills, gifts, and strengths. As these develop, you personally benefit, while also being paid for producing goods or services for the benefit of others.
For some, working from home meant they continued to produce services to benefit the community; but they lost out on what they needed personally — the development, socialisation, and recognition of their gifts.
Of course, some employers worked hard to avoid this situation, but the article cited above suggests not enough employers took this seriously.
The pandemic has thrown up so many tricky issues. Some people want to continue to work from home, or at least to work flexibly: ‘I proved I could do my job from home and I preferred being home so why can’t this continue?’
One response here is to think about what work really is. Since labour left the home centuries ago, employers have tended to salary people not just for getting through a list of tasks but for ‘being at work’: for leaving home and joining a group of others in a special place devoted to their shared employment.
Most of us have spent years devoting daylight hours to the workplace and forming a micro-community around our employment. Granted this model may have had its day. But I’m uncertain about the permanent relocation of work to home for a number of reasons. Even where employers do treat staff at home well, what about the need to consecrate place to domestic or family life and privacy?
What about the split personalities we may end up with when we need those with whom we share a house, block or street to respect our work lives and not just our private lives? And what about the significant change for homes and occupants that occur when our houses become full-time workplaces?
But there is always another side. Some have spoken of an increased love and investment in home, family and locality through WFH; of saved time and reduced anxiety; of discovering new strengths and appreciating being trusted at work even while invisible to bosses.
So, what do we actually need from our work? My thought is very simple.
First, ideally my work choices are consistent with the choices I make in other areas such as health, family, education, faith. If we are lucky enough to be able to choose our work, do it as part of a life-plan directed towards overall wellbeing. Don’t live just for work.
Secondly, we work with colleagues who are not usually our friends but also not strangers.
These are relationships in which we can be highly vulnerable. My workmates don’t have to love me but between us there has to be appreciation of our roles and of our best attempts to fulfil them, ie there must be real work-respect. I suspect this is very often lacking and that the lack is covered up by various techniques. It will however express itself in toxic work cultures, bullying, anxiety and all the bad effects we are learning more about each year.
Catholic tradition celebrates work from the work of Creation and Redemption, through the numbers of workers in the Gospels, the saints at work, to the series of social encyclicals from Pope Leo XIII onwards that have focussed on work as a dignifying activity.
When I was a boy, we focussed on the disease of unemployment. If we are heading for a period of mass resignation, we’ll need to focus on personal happiness and community need post-work.
I don’t think the era of mass work is ending but there are ethical challenges ahead and a serious role for Catholic tradition in navigating them.