Some thoughts on why “empty labor” makes us miserable

The Atlantic has an absolutely fascinating article that reveals how little work actually goes on at work.

From the article:

…the proportion of people who say they never work hard has long been far greater than those who say they always do. The articles and books about the stressed-out fraction of humanity can be counted in the thousands, but why has so little been written about this opposite extreme?

And this:

I talked with over 40 people who spent half of their working hours on private activities—a phenomenon I call “empty labor.” I wanted to know how they did it, and I wanted to know why. “Why” turned out to be the easy part: For most people, work simply sucks. We hate Mondays and we long for Fridays—it’s not a coincidence that evidence points towards a peak in cardiac mortality on Monday mornings.

Read the whole thing – it’s great!

Similarly, two Swiss consultants have defined the term boreout. They posit that you get burnout from having too much to do and boreout from a lack of meaningful tasks at work.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Office Space, this is one of the things they get exactly right in this dialog between lay-off consultant Bob and IT employee Peter:

Bob Slydell: You see, what we’re actually trying to do here is, we’re trying to get a feel for how people spend their day at work… so, if you would, would you walk us through a typical day, for you?
Peter Gibbons: Well, I generally come in at least fifteen minutes late, ah, I use the side door – that way Lumbergh can’t see me, heh heh – and, uh, after that I just sorta space out for about an hour.
Bob Porter: Da-uh? Space out?
Peter Gibbons: Yeah, I just stare at my desk; but it looks like I’m working. I do that for probably another hour after lunch, too. I’d say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual, work.

My sense is that this goes on in a lot of big workplaces, where there can be any number of tasks that don’t serve any meaningful purpose. Much effort instead goes into things like:

  • endless meetings
  • enforcing bureaucracy and red tape
  • writing and reading memos
  • internal politicking and backstabbing
  • activities intended only to CYA (Cover Your Ass).

For me, this is a tragedy because above all else, what we crave at work is meaningful results, i.e. knowing that we make a difference at something that matters. Having to pretend that you’re contributing while knowing that your job is essentially meaningless is a recipe for stress.

What we need to do instead is eliminate all work that is not meaningful and then work hard to make sure that each and every person in the organization:

  1. Are good at their jobs (i.e. what they do)
  2. Know that what they do is important (i.e. why they do it)

This is a recipe for not only greater happiness at work but also for more energy, motivation and engagement.

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