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Work in Progress

October 11, 2015


Last Wednesday marked the 30th anniversary of my first day in work. I can remember it vividly, sitting anxiously in a café in Elephant and Castle just before reporting for duty at what was then the Department of Health and Social Security, a new set of colleagues and day of meetings, which I was asked to take a note of, full of acronyms which I was unable to translate.

Looking back it’s staggering how much change there has been in the world since I started. No computers, no email, everything written out in long hand and then typed up by “the pool”, no open plan offices, regular Friday lunchtime trips to the pub with the obvious consequences for productivity on Friday afternoons.

I joined the civil service in 1985 with the clear expectation that it would be my career for life just like many others starting work at that time. Things have moved on and it’s much easier to change organisations and paths than it was in the past. Although I have stayed in area of health my own career has spanned central Government, the NHS and the voluntary sector.

Work has been very important for me and I have been lucky to have a broadly successful career and the opportunity to work on issues which matter to me intellectually and morally. Many are not so lucky. One of my grandfathers was out of work for 15 years after the 1926 Miners Strike in the Rhondda Valley. The experience destroyed his self-esteem and left his family in poverty. Others spend a life trapped in jobs from which there is little satisfaction to be gained and, from which, economic necessity means there is no escape.

At the end of the day for the majority of us most work is better than no work, in particular in times of austerity. That truth, however, can distract attention from an important debate about the quality of work and the essence of what gives us satisfaction in activities which occupy a large proportion of our waking hours.

For me there are four things in which satisfaction at work is grounded.

The first and most important are the people you work with. Good colleagues are a crucial part of why good tasks are enjoyable and a significant compensation for those situations which are otherwise difficult. Ever since prehistoric times we have organised ourselves in groups to carry out tasks and effective teamwork is a crucial ingredient in performance at work. Having good colleagues is not just a question of people you like or are happy having a pint with. It reflects qualities of reliability and mutual commitment and of respect for complementary skills and attributes. Most central to good work is the relationships you have with those you work for or who work to you. Second to being a good parent being a good boss is one of the hardest things to do well in life. It is crucial, though, to good work. Much misery is caused when it is done badly.

The second feature of good work is the ability to feel that what you are doing is worthwhile and that you are, in some way, able to make a difference. In general, I have been lucky in my career that has been true most of the time, as it should be for a career spent in health and social care. But even in the NHS it is all too possible to lose sight of the purpose of the endeavour and to be ground down by the day to day difficulties which you are trying to manage. Celebration of purpose and achievement are important ingredients in refreshing perspective and renewing one’s commitment.

Thirdly it is also important to have a sense of self-worth at work and to have some pride in what you do and the skills you bring. External recognition for that is a key factor whether through the formal systems of promotion or reward, hard to deliver when money is tight and organisation shrinking, or informally. Thank you and well done or two of the most important words at work, their currency never diminished if they are delivered with genuine sincerity.

The fourth element is the element of discretion one has in how is allowed to carry out one’s work. There is some good research evidence here which associates poorer health outcomes with groups of workers with less explicit discretion over their jobs. Technology has changed some of the parameters of the debate. Email and mobile technology can create some flexibility in where and when we work and releases us, at times, from the tyranny of being “in the office”. At the same time we can be at risk of never being free from work with the insidious temptation to look at our emails. The importance of taking holidays and having a break from work is vital if work is to remain good.

So in reflecting on 30 years at work I am drawn to remind myself that the issues which matter are fundamentally about people and that, as an individual and a manager, it is how I think about people and their motivations and their interactions which makes the profoundest difference to whether work is something good or something harmful.

It also makes one think about the wider changes in the workplace. In many respects work is a less hierarchical and more empowering experience than it was when I started. However a constant desire for change has made the world of work much more unsettled and uncertain. Some of that brings opportunity but constant restructuring takes its toll.

The next decade of my career may see as much change as the last three and certainly I fear for the world of work which my children will join. It is an issue which is worth thinking about.


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  1. Saxo Ungrammaticus permalink

    Well done Dad, you work very hard at work and there’s no doubt that you achieve a lot in it. I admire the way you work with people.

  2. Binda Rai permalink

    an excellent reflective piece, it was for all those reasons that I enjoyed being part of your team.

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