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Do you work to live, or live to work?

I have always found this distinction intriguing. The common understanding of it is that those who work to live simply endure their job in order to sustain themselves and do their living when they are not at work. Those who live to work are often labelled ‘workaholics’ and typically seen as one of the lucky few who really love their job and therefore struggle to switch off from it.

For these people there is less of a distinction between life and work, they see work as something entirely fundamental to their lives. It also implies that they are living, partly, in service to their work – in fact this is what knits a rather binary distinction together; whether we work to live or live to work, ‘life’ in this paradigm is in service to ‘work’ it’s just that some people get more than just financial return from it.

Perhaps a better question to ask is this…


Should life be in service to work, or should work be in service to life?

To begin to ponder this question we probably need to look back at how ‘work’ has evolved so far as part of our story as a species.

The origins of activity that could be considered as work was all about providing physical sustenance, we needed to eat, sleep, have shelter etc. In small tribal communities we toiled in order to sustain ourselves through hunting and gathering. Activities also emerged that were less about physical nurturing and more about artistic expression, honouring spiritual and family connection.  In this way work was in service to life.

It is important to provide a shout out to basic human needs at this point and utilise the work of Marshall Rosenburg (creator of Non-Violent Communication – see video below). Not that he is the sole thinker in this area, just one that I’m a particular fan of.

According to Rosenburg we all have the following basic human needs: 

  • Autonomy: to be able to choose one’s goal’s and values and choose how to fulfil them
  • Celebration: to be able to celebrate dreams fulfilled or mourn and honour lost loved ones
  • Integrity: authenticity, creativity, meaning, self-worth
  • Play: fun and laughter
  • Spiritual communion: beauty, harmony, inspiration, order and peace
  • Physical nurturance: air, food, water, movement, shelter, rest and protection from threats to life
  • Interdependence: acceptance, appreciation, closeness, community, consideration, contribution to the enrichment of life, emotional safety, empathy, honesty, love, reassurance, respect, support, trust, understanding and warmth

Interdependence is key

Notice how the longest list of needs belongs to the interdependence category? These are needs we gain from being in relationship with others.

It is a useful reminder that we are, (in essence), a social species and that we depend on our relationships and connections with each other as a source of many of our needs being met. I would also like to draw attention to one of the needs listed that, for me, always stands out from the crowd and that is our need to contribute to the enrichment of life.

I have always taken this to mean that we all have a basic need to contribute in some way to everyone’s basic needs being met. How beautiful this is. How easy it is to imagine this happening in ancient communities where work was in collective service to the needs of those who carried it out. In this setting everybody was able to contribute to the enrichment of life for everyone through participating in work.


How we undermined the work-life partnership

Sadly, the beautiful and equal partnership between work and life became fractured through a power imbalance. As our species grew in numbers and new ways of organising ourselves emerged, so did the nature of work. It became something that was not directly linked to the needs of those who carried it out but something that served the needs of others who were not directly involved in the toil.

How did we as a species build our grand ‘achievements’ such as super-size engineering feats and wealth? Well, thousands upon thousands of workers sacrificed their personal needs (and often their lives) to enable these endeavours. It was slavery that enabled some of us to enjoy leisure time, that many argue was the key enabler for the development of philosophy and art.  Were these workers internally motivated to do this or is it more likely that they were either working as a survival necessity (in exchange for small sums of money) or taken from their families and forced to work against their will? With ‘civilization’ came the concept of privilege, where some people’s needs are more important than others; when the enrichment of life was easier to access and enjoy for some more than others.

Without doubt, the work of Karl Marx incapsulated the fracture in the relationship between life and work in the most effective way. When we as a species divided labour between master and slave or employer and employee, we tore apart a nurturing and loving relationship with tragic consequences of Shakespearean proportions. Why is it so tragic? Because life is work and work is life and through alienating production, we began to alienate ourselves from the essence of who we are.


Where are we now in this story?

Well we are, in the main, still living with structures and assumptions that are shaped by the division of labour for example:

  • ‘decision making is held by senior people and separate from the workers and the work’
  • ‘standardised rules and procedures are required to ensure quality outcomes’
  • ‘people are motivated externally so we can incentivise good behaviour and sanction undesirable behaviour’
  • ‘work must be split into distinct specialisms in order to achieve efficiency’

Beliefs and assumptions such as these act as barriers to reconciling work and life essentially because work is still seen as something separate from humans, and that human needs must always flex around the needs of the work. Interestingly the nature of work available, for some, has developed into something that nourishes many more of our basic human needs.

The ‘knowledge economy’ is considered to be a noteworthy shift in the world of work and certainly goes some way to heal the wounds of the past. In contrast to a factory production line, we are now required to bring much more of ourselves into modern jobs because that is what these jobs require of us (e.g. to be creative, to collaborate, to be intellectually curious etc.). I would argue, however, that we have yet to fully reconnect life with work and certainly there is no common understanding of them being inextricably linked in the way they once were.

Life is still in service to work.


Closing enquiry

  •  If we are to accept that work and life should go hand in hand, in service to one another, how can we facilitate this reunion of long-lost soul mates?
  • What would it be like if modern day work and organisations rejected the division of labour and started to behave like those ancient tribal communities, where work was in service to the needs of those who carried it out and the interdependency of human relationships were honoured, respected and nurtured?
  • What could those organisations collectively achieve and what global problems could we start to solve together rather than create?

I wonder if this line of enquiry might lead us to the next big achievement for us as a species. Instead of building a cathedral or GDP at the expense of life, perhaps we can enrich life through reconciling it with work, and their forgotten love story.


Team Development Consultants Coaching Cornwall Somerset Devon

Thoughts and reflections by Jen Parkin, Team Development Specialist at Sky Space.

Jen is a systems thinking expert with extensive experience supporting large organisations to design and implement meaningful change programmes aimed at systemic change. While she thinks of herself of as a consultant, she is also a trained Organisational Coach who approaches her work through a relational lens and encourages client organisations to become thriving ‘communities of work’. 

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