A noble phrase that has been around for a while but has recently gained prominence in recent years is the term “dignity of work.” It is spoken across the political spectrum, because it is believed to have universal respect and acceptance. Who could argue with a concept that conveys appreciation for commitment, skill development, and above all personal responsibility to provide for oneself and one’s family? The dignity of work not only refers to the pride of traditional work done honestly, it can also inspire and motivate all working-age adults to do their part for the economy and the community.
The dignity of work is considered a sublime end in itself. We were raised to accept a lifetime of work. Work is contributing. The job is to do your duty. Work is good and more selfless work is better. Achieving a deep sense of satisfaction that comes from doing the job well is the ultimate reward for our work, we are told. The appreciative pat on the back from a coworker, the boss’s smile and nod, the eloquent testimonial from a delighted customer represent just a few of the energizing compliments that make the job invaluable.
So why doesn’t work feel so favorable or valuable to so many? We don’t have to look far to see people unhappy with their work. The dignity of work is elusive for more workers than it should be. A 2019 HBR survey of more than 500 workers found that the vast majority (90%) expected to find joy in their work, but given the time at work, only 37% actually experienced joy. A few years ago, Gallup reported that only 30% of workers were engaged in their jobs. Forbes cited a survey of 411 workers, 19% of whom were satisfied with their jobs. I could go on.
Dignity is not inherent in work. Work cannot be decent unless some basic conditions are met. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops advocates for fundamental workers’ rights as a prerequisite for labor dignity, such as the availability of productive work, fair and sufficient compensation, and a leave structure that allows organization and organization. unionization, among other rights. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown calls for improvements in wages and benefits, health care costs and retirement programs as a way to ensure dignity. Ezra Klein in the New York Times points to the elimination of harmful and oppressive workplaces and direction to encourage workers to stay healthy and have free and family time.
I would add the elimination of tyrannical management, toxic co-workers, and workplace cultures that devalue parts of the workforce. However, beyond stating what is unwanted to create dignity at work, let’s focus on practices that are likely to lead to dignity. Workers in general want the opportunity to motivate themselves. There are three key situations that encourage this. As Daniel Pink pointed out in his book Drive, fostering an environment in which workers are urged to develop mastery of their profession, exercise autonomy in decision-making and define personal and professional purpose in what they do of great importance.
Workers want to be respected and have the freedom to grow. They want to be able to support reasonable financial needs by working only a 40-hour job per week. They want executive management that understands that the primary capital of their companies is their employees, who need to know that they are valued. They want the support of customers who intentionally direct their money toward companies that treat their employees with dignity. (The question arises: is a business model that requires employees to work for just $ 7.25 an hour worth staying in business these days?)
The dignity of work must remain a universal value, but let us not cling to some notion that arises spontaneously, especially under adverse conditions. It is not like this. Dignity can be felt individually, but it takes a community to see that it is widely shared.