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Society’s perception of work is negative. Society spends the vast majority of its time performing work. Therefore, society spends most of its time doing things that are unpleasant on an individual level. However this conclusion depends upon the first premise applying universally across the board. Intuitively we know it doesn’t; job satisfaction is relative and subjective to the individual and there are most definitely people who do enjoy their chosen line of work. For the sake of this article, it is assumed that the majority of society does not enjoy what the do and spends roughly 60% of their waking life performing these duties. Is such an investment warranted? From a communitative viewpoint – yes. The mundane services we take for granted are a necessary evil if society is to remain functional in the way it currently operates. Someone has to collect the rubbish, wash the dishes, mop the floors and hand out parking fines (although the later is highly questionable). The abolition of unpleasant work from society is only possible if either a) society is overhauled in fundamental ways (such as the way in which waste is dealt with, goods transported, services provided etc) or b) machines replace the working underclass. Taking a wide berth from the first option, the introduction of machines to the workforce is still in the realms of science-fiction. Although definitely attainable, there will always be the requirement of a human presence overseeing production. Unfortunately, this means that we are stuck with work for the time being.

A more thorough investigation into the meaning of ‘work’ is required if we are to explore the subject further. Work, in the sense that I am using it, pertains to the exchange of an individual’s time for monetary compensation. The necessary requirement for this transaction to occur is that the individual pledges their allegiance to the employer and performs all tasks competently as specified in the original contract. Although in practice, both the employer and the employee overstep these bounds and either under-perform (leaving the employer out of pocket) or over-perform (leaving the employee under-appreciated and overworked). Personally, the initial introductory period of a new employment position is actually quite exciting. Novelty always stimulates the brain, forming new neuronal connections and strengthening the old. In this sense, work can be said to have a short-term, positive effect on the individual. Social spheres are expanding, new introductions are being made, the individual is learning new skills and applying themselves in a useful way towards the collective goals of an organisation. In the long term, however, once the novelty has worn off and the day-to-day dreariness begins to set-in a series of cascading events can lead to an entrapment of sorts. The individual becomes so complacent and ambivalent that they become locked into a job, despite their unhappiness. Employers learn who they can push the most, exploiting hard workers and consequently changing that individual’s demeanor to once of cynicism. What had once seemed to be the ‘dream job’ quickly turns into a living nightmare as each day unfolds exactly the same as the rest.

I have been exposed to this phenomenon first-hand. Joining a global contract research organisation in the United Kingdom seemed like the perfect job. Canteens with cooked lunches, New Scientist issues stocked in the employee library, widescreen computer monitors and free parking (they pushed this as being a luxury – what is the world coming to if a parking space at work is considered as unnecessary to entry level employees?). The training was great, the staff seemed nice and I was learning alot about a unique and interesting industry. Unfortunately my romanticised view was not to last; office politics, corporate propaganda and the perception of under-utilisation all combined to create a sense of apathy and ambivalence. I noticed to my horror that I had slipped into the automaton role that everyone else seemed to follow. Like zombies, we turned up for work at the same time, parked in the same spot each day (there was hell to pay if someone took ‘your’ spot) and went for drink breaks at the alloted time intervals (10:30, 12, 2:30). An deviation to this schedule elicited a cry of inquisition, such as the time I turned up 30mins early to work (alot of exaggerated watch checking and questioning ensued). Fortunately my time at the company is drawing to a close; in the six months I have worked there no real challenges remain, nothing unique is presented except for the rare occasion that I work on study X instead of study Y.

Another observation is the automatic social roles that we fall into at places of employment. New employees form the bottom rung, ascending to the top corporate managers. An individual must summon all their social deviance if they are to succeed in the corporate world. Deception, blackmail, social loafing and gossip are all daily occurrences. Even by removing and distancing oneself from the job completely fails to remove these problems. In such cases, the person is viewed with suspicion and remains forever on the social periphery – never to be accepted into the group. It seems that one has to either publish or perish; join the group and accept their principles and practices at face value or become a social outcast, the subject of watercooler conversations and hallway gossip.

However, with all this being said, work does not have to be unpleasant. Those lucky individuals that earn a living doing what they love aren’t necessarily earning a fat paycheck or saving lives. The trashman may get as much of a kick out of his job as the neurosurgeon that discovers a new treatment for a disorder. Job satisfaction is entirely relative. As such, this makes it difficult to make judgments regarding the value of certain employment positions. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as they say. Perhaps a solution to the problem of job dissatisfaction is one that involves a more efficient distribution and matching of people to jobs.

“Rat-race syndrome” only occurs when an individual remains in a job that they hate due to some external constraint or a general complacency and lack of vitality. Excluding the external constraint (such as financial), better career counseling and reflection may help to reduce the frequency and severity of this suburban disease. Empowering people to question the applicability and enjoyment gained from working in their chosen career should allow them to make life-changing decisions without fear. The danger really lies in a lack of knowledge regarding oneself; what do I like? If this first option is not available, question your reasons for being in the job; are they genuine to you or are you only doing the job because your parents paid for your university degree? Setting yourself up for a life of misery is not worth the measly compensation or the psychological discomfort (which ultimately expresses itself in the form of somatic illness).

Antiquated work cultures and practices could quite possibly be the main culprit for low job satisfaction. As companies become top heavy with old timers, the workforce becomes increasingly disenfranchised with their daily routine. Managerial staff become detached from the company as a whole, expecting the world but giving little in return. As new entrepreneurial start-ups such as Google increase their footing on the international stage and their practices are more widely adopted, job satisfaction will rise. For example, Google’s informal style of management fosters a creative culture. Employees are valued on an individual basis, and encouraged to undertake pet projects to keep the work interesting. While the ultimate outcome of adopting such a strategy has yet to be fully realised, it seems to be working for them. Google shares have seen unprecedented growth and they continue to lead the market in their field. This is all despite their below-average salaries! It seems that reimbursement becomes secondary if the work is enjoyable, challenging and interesting. Culture quickly becomes a major consideration if organisations are aiming to run a business that values the contributions of its employees.

In short, employees need to take control of their own lives, questioning their motives for remaining in a job where they are visibly unhappy. Employers need to value their employees, forming meaningful relationships on an individual basis, creating achievable and workable goals, introducing new and exciting content into daily work-life and encouraging constructive criticism of the organisation. Barriers need to be pulled down, not put up. Managers should value the input of every worker, from the CEO to the mail-room guy. Everyone has something to contribute, and by allowing people the freedom to express themselves not only will productivity rise, but also the threat posed by rat-race syndrome will be reduced. Provided the conditions exist for change, the employee should never be afraid to expand their horizons – take a quantum leap and do something wild and exciting. Not only will you wake up actually wanting to go to work, by the time you reach retirement you just might have ticked off a few things from your lifetime ‘to-do’ list and had a bit of fun at the same time.