Labour of Love Is work truly making us happy?

Read more Last updated: January 2019
In collection Work
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Working fulfils a fundamental human need, say the experts. So why do we have such mixed feelings about it – and what would happen if we didn’t need to earn money?

Our inner self wants to work

"Work is an end in itself and brings joy along with it,” says leading US depth psychologist James Hillman. In case you were wondering, a depth psychologist is someone who studies our unconscious motivations – in other words, what makes us tick at the very deepest level. According to Hillman, we all have an intrinsic, fundamental instinct to work: “Our hands want to be doing something, our minds want to be used,” he says.

And he’s certainly not alone in his enthusiasm for the four-letter word. German neurobiologist, doctor and psychothera¬pist Professor Dr Joachim Bauer writes in his book ‘Arbeit’ (‘Work’): “When we work, we face the world.” By this he means the external world that we are directly changing through our work as well as our own inner world: “This is where we… experience our bodies, our senses, our potential, and also our limits,” he says.

But if work is so intrinsically important to us, why do so many of us get that Sun¬day evening dread, and why do so many people fantasise about their retirement? Perhaps the answer is not that we don’t want to work per se, but because we are not happy with the work we are doing.

Sense of purpose

If we really have such a strong instinct to work, then do we actually need work in order to be happy? Emphatically yes, according to Professor Fritz Böhle, head of the Research Centre of Socioeconomics of the Working Environment at the University of Augsburg, Germany. “The purpose of work is to create something. That’s what people need. Work is an important basis – although not the only one – through which people gain mean¬ing in their lives,” he says.

In addition to fulfilling our potential, work has long been a defining element of our social life. Sociologists call this ‘working society’ – a society in which gainful employment takes a central role in our lives. Our identity, our self-esteem and our social status increasingly rely upon our status at work. Anyone who has a job automatically feels useful to other people. Paid employment gives someone the social recognition that an unemployed person doesn't get. Also, a large proportion of social contact takes place at work and through work-related activities, and work itself gives our lives a specific time structure and immediate motivation to be active.

Why so workshy?

Not wanting to work is like not wanting to eat or have sex, according to Hillman, who refers to it as "the paralysis of an instinct”. But still, many people are not happy with their job. So how does this paralysis come about?

Professor Böhle explains: “In many ways, the actual world of work does not correspond to what we want. In surveys, we've observed that people say they want to give up their current job as soon as they can. But deep down we really want to carry on working.” Our apparent keenness to stop could be because many of us find our jobs not demanding enough to bring satisfaction, too pressurised or we find the working conditions or environment unpleasant. As Professor Bauer writes: “The real enemies of work can be found where people are degraded in their job, occupied with meaningless procedures, put under unreasonable pressure, badly paid or are turned into soulless machines.”

Even if a job fails to meet our personal needs, we usually carry on working, but this is only because we get paid for it. The fact that work can actually contribute to personal development and be important regardless of earnings is often missed. “Balancing both of these aspects is a great challenge,” argues Professor Böhle. “In a capitalist society, work is primarily a means to an end.”

Business meeting
A society driven by gainful employment is called ‘working society’ where our self-esteem, social status and general responsibilities are heavily connected with our lives at work.

To work or not to work

So what would happen if we didn’t need to earn money – for instance, if the government were to introduce an unconditional basic income? Leading German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm considered this several decades ago and concluded: “If the whole societal system were to be changed so the require¬ment to work was no longer associated with coercion and menace, there would be just a minority of sick people who would prefer to do nothing.”

Professor Böhle agrees that people would not just sit around in this situation. “Being excluded from work does not make you happy, you can see that. Being idle is no paradise.” So what would people be doing with their time? How would the personal needs that are currently satisfied by paid employment be satisfied in other ways? Would people do some form of voluntary work? Or would this satisfaction come through activities such as theatre, art, music, sport or other leisure pursuits?

Interestingly, Professor Böhle doesn’t see leisure activities – or ‘play’ – as the opposite of work at all: “Play shares many similarities with work in that it’s about taking something seriously, pursuing a goal, testing yourself and developing your skills and talents.”

So would it usher in an era of leisure? “It’s not totally clear but I think it would be important to give leisure at least an equal significance to work,” concludes Professor Böhle.

How hearing loss can affect work

People who lose their hearing often have very poor chances of being able to continue their careers, or even having a career at all. Here are some employment related figures for hearing impaired people according to the following research from around the world:

  • Only 48% of deaf people were employed in 2014. National Deaf Center (2016)

  • But, deaf people who work full time report average annual earnings that are comparable to the general population. National Deaf Center (2016)

  • 1 in 5 hearing impaired people gives up on the job market and almost 15% feel so spent after work that they have nothing left for active leisure pursuits. Hear it

  • Unaddressed hearing loss globally costs US$750 billion per year. Yet this does not include costs of hearing devices, but health sector costs, educational support, loss of productivity and societal costs. WHO (2017)

  • The global loss of productivity every year, due to unemployment and premature retirement, totals US$105 billion. WHO (2017)

  • Estimates suggest that the British economy alone loses £25 billion every year because of hearing loss. International Longevity Centre (2015)


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