A noble phrase that has been around for a while, but has gained new prominence in recent years is the term “dignity of work.” It speaks out across the political spectrum, because it is believed to have universal respect and acceptance. Who could argue with a concept that conveys value for commitment, skill development and, above all, personal responsibility to provide for oneself and one’s family? The dignity of work refers not only to pride in traditional work done honestly, but can also inspire and motivate all working-age adults to do their part for the economy and the community.
The dignity of work is seen as a sublime end in itself. We were raised to accept a life of work. The work is contributing. The job is to do your duty. Work is good and more selfless work is better. We are told that achieving a deep sense of satisfaction that comes from doing a job well is the ultimate reward for our work. The appreciative pat on the back from a co-worker, the smile and nod from the boss, the eloquent testimonial from a delighted customer are just a few of the energizing compliments that make work priceless.
So why don’t so many feel the job is as favorable or valuable? We don’t have to look far to see people who are dissatisfied 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 work. 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 if some basic conditions are not met. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops advocates for fundamental worker rights as a prerequisite for dignity at work, such as the availability of productive work, fair and adequate compensation, and a permit structure that allows organization and unionization, among other rights. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio 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 management encouraging workers to stay healthy and have leisure and family time.
I would add the elimination of tyrannical management, toxic co-workers, and work cultures that devalue parts of the workforce. However, beyond pointing out what is not wanted to engender dignity at work, let us focus on practices that can lead to dignity. Workers in general want the opportunity to motivate themselves. There are three key situations that encourage this. As Daniel Pink points out in his book Ridefostering an environment where workers are encouraged to develop mastery of their profession, exercise autonomy in decision-making, and define personal and professional purpose in what they do to a great extent.
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-per-week job. They want executive management that understands that the main asset of their companies is their employees, who need to know that they are valued. They want the support of customers who intentionally put 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 in this day and age?)
The dignity of work must continue to be a universal value, but let us not cling to some notion that arises spontaneously, especially in adverse conditions. It is not like this. Dignity can be felt individually, but it takes a community to see that it is widely shared.