Reflecting on the meaning of work this Worker’s Day

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South Africa is still plagued by unemployment. 24.3% of our population is currently classified as job seekers. We know that unemployment leads to social instability (hello riots, domestic abuse, xenophobia and crime) and so in remembrance of Worker’s Day I would like to examine the phenomenon of work.

 Work is a powerful force.

Ever been unemployed and enjoyed a dinner party? Probably not, as our conversations are based around work: “So, what do you do?” or “What line of work are you in?” or “What’s your profession?”

And it’s not just others that define us by what work we do, we often define ourselves this way too. When asked the question, “Who are you?” your first reply is usually, “I’m a Teacher/Artist/Lawyer/Business Man/Mom”. Work is an integral part of who we are and how we see ourselves.

As an Occupational Therapist, I define work rather broadly. Work is equated with productivity and so it may/may not result in an income. A task is defined as work when the person doing the task sees it as such.

For example, gardening could be your job. You could be a Gardener and you garden purely for income. Or it could be your hobby, your passion, a task you cannot resist. Or it may be somewhere in between… a weekend chore that you love to hate or a paying job that you feel brings you endless joy. So work is actually NOT an all or nothing affair. There may be elements of your work that you really enjoy and almost see as fun/leisure/play.

Only you can define what work is in your life.

Enjoying work is only possible when it is held in balance. Work is a powerful force and as such it can slowly or suddenly morph into an all-consuming monster. The most passionate and caring doctor may lose interest in medicine if the time her work consumes becomes excessive and starts eating into her leisure time (or sleep!) She will slowly become less effective as a doctor as her health and personality become murky.

On the other hand, the health benefits of work are notable. Workers are less prone to depression and those who continue working live longer than those who retire. Work, when well-balanced, can help a worker structure their lives and bring them the necessary income to fund enjoyable leisure activities… like golf, and drinking wine, and shopping (although this is an activity that still feels like work to me).

Perhaps the saddest reality is that in our young country the over-worked and the workless live side by side. The over-worked hand over tasks such as cleaning, driving, gardening and admin so they can cope better with their work demands, but in most circumstances these jobs only result in what I call the broke worker.

This is the worker for whom Lunchbox Lewis sings: “I got bills I gotta pay so I’m gonna work, work , work everyday. I ‘ve got mouths I gotta feed so I’m gonna make sure everybody eats”.

The broke worker is trapped. Not empowered. Not uplifted. He must work seven days a week to survive. He is prone to physical and mental ill health as he is unable to find a balance between work, rest and play. He often lives with unemployed family members or neighbours desperate to work and so whilst he gains status, he may feel immense pressure to perform.

So as you approach your work today, here are some recommendations to make your work and our country more pleasant:

  1. Be thankful for your job (or at least one aspect of it!) so your body and the workplace are less toxic.
  2. Look for ways to uplift less-skilled workers around you (don’t be mean spirited about sharing your experience and/or knowledge - we have a serious skill shortage here)
  3. If you are successful enough to employ others then seek to give them a positive work identity and grant them the work/life balance you require for yourself.

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