We need to talk about work

CEME will be publishing a ‘theology of work’ in late 2015 so it was particularly helpful to listen to Yves de Talhouet, senior Vice-President of Hewlett-Packard on the subject.

Work is essential to human flourishing. All sorts of implications flow from that including for government welfare policies. However, work is not necessarily in the state it should be in. Gallup have shown that 16% of workers are actively disengaged from their work which has enormous cost in terms of productivity, community and the collective intelligence within a workplace.

Yves described work as under attack from two sources, both of which need to be resisted. The first is the classic ‘work is a necessary evil,’ or simply viewed as a prison to escape from. Actually work delivers well-being, defeats poverty and dependence and so needs to be encouraged. More interesting was Yves second point about work being under attack. In this case work was under attack from management systems driven only by numbers, productivity, targets etc, key performance indicators – all of which had the effect of disguising real work.

Work has three aspects:

  • The subjective – work is intricately related to human being
  • The objective – the measured output
  • The collective – human relationships

A proper understanding of work involves all three of these aspects to be properly recognised. The problem is that the objective side (measurement, targets) has grown to the extent that nothing else seems to matter. Work is reduced to process and the consequence is disengagement. More value needs to be put into the subjective side (recognition, encouraging self-esteem) and the collective (team work, solidarity, community).

It seems to be me that we either over-emphasise the objective as Yves suggests so that we become obsessed by outputs and targets, or  we ignore that productive side altogether in pursuit of some vague collective ideal. Work both dignifies humanity and is essential for producing goods and services. Work enables us to flourish and provide for our families. Work, for the Christian, reflects God’s purpose for us. Work is important.

If work is conveys both dignity and economic productivity then its lack destroys both. So unemployment is not a good thing and we should encourage policies which encourage enterprise, growth and hence employment. At least part of the purpose of a firm is to provide employment in the process of producing economic surplus.  However, discouraging work also damages human dignity and purpose. CEME is strictly independent and works with people across the political spectrum. Nevertheless, if minimum wages are imposed at too high a level for all jobs, or welfare benefits set at too high a level, the consequence could be to discourage work. Equally, in order to encourage work there is surely a case for a degree of wage subsidy at the lowest points of the wage scale to encourage people into work. However, if tax credits potentially subsidise the proper wages employers should be paying then there is an even stronger case for a lower introductory rate of income tax which would encourage work, avoid subsidies and indeed the impact on take-home pay as income rises.

Whatever the policy prescriptions work not only must pay, but work must also be valued and invested with true worth, value and dignity in all its fullness.

Richard%20Turnbullweb#1# (2)

Dr Richard Turnbull is the Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics (CEME). For more information about Richard please click here.