Why Less Work And Unlimited Vacation Won’t Make You Happy

On this blog I’ve explored several reasons for why work sucks. In case you missed them: Here are my articles on how workers suffer as a result of Taylorism, Post-Fordism, The New Economy and Digital Transformation. As much as it can suck, though, working less or offering more perks won’t solve the problem. It only makes the problem smaller or less obvious, like wearing  a hat when you have a bad hair day: It allows you to hide your hair for the day but ultimately, you’ll still want to get rid of the bad hair (and the hat, because no one wears hats anymore and they just look ridiculously out of place).

If the way we work is broken, the solution obviously is to fix work and not to put makeup on a pig, which is what disciplines like „employer branding“ are trying to do:
It doesn’t make sense to compensate a lack of work quality with perks like flextime, a four-day work week, remote working, free snacks or unlimited vacation days. „Why not?“, I hear you asking, „I want those!“ I hear you; these perks do have their value. But on their own they offer only temporary highs, distracting us from the really important stuff. Also I’m certain most of these „perks“ will become standard before 2030 anyway – that’s just the way work evolves, but I’ll go into more detail about that at a different time. The reason it doesn’t make sense to focus on them is that these gimmicks don’t fix the real problem:

If the work you have to do sucks, it will suck on 9 A.M. on a Monday in the office with free snacks – and it will suck at 2 P.M. on a Saturday at a mountain lodge where you’re spending your „worcation“.
The only thing the snacks and mountain lodge do is offer psychological padding and help you to better compensate the suck. They act like air ride suspension in a car, softening the blows from the potholes on the road. Sure, that’s something at least, but it’s hardly a long-term strategy: Eventually we want to fix the potholes, take different roads, or switch to entirely different means of transportation instead – and we should do so sooner rather than later, because if you don’t fix potholes, traffic makes them grow larger over time.

For HR, employer branding is like air ride suspension for a car salesman: It’s a feature that helps him sell cars without solving or taking responsibility for the problem of growing potholes – except HR actually is responsible for the potholes in their organization. As a result you end up the proud owner of a car that will gradually become less able to handle the growing problem, while at the same time you’re made responsible for still experiencing and suffering from the problem: We gave you air ride suspension; how can you possibly complain when so many people have to get around using regular springs?

This is unfortunately a common pattern in modern-day management: You’re not actually being offered a solution; you’re having a cosmetic quick fix forced upon you. What perks of this kind amount really achieve is to distract you from the fact that responsibility for the overall suck is being dumped in your lap.

Achieving happiness at work

Lasting happiness at work is not about being happily distracted from the work you do by means of a fancy company car, a foosball table or extravagant company events. Here’s a hard truth for you to chew on: There is no form of compensation and no perk that will ever be enough to make you happy in the long term if you’re not happy in the first place. It may sound corny as hell, but it’s still true:

Happiness is not a destination that can be reached by suffering. It’s a byproduct of doing what aligns with your inner self in the here and now. The key to a happy working life is doing work that makes you happy.

There is a funny one-liner that I’ve often seen accompanying thoughts on leadership and employee motivation – it goes like this:

Notice to employees

It’s a harmless joke that’s always good for a smile because the irony is obvious to all: No one would assume this to be real advice meant to be taken seriously. Right?

In fact many of us eagerly apply this obviously faulty and perverted logic to our own careers and working lives: We subject ourselves to situations and environments that make us unhappy or downright miserable, taking the continuous beatings because we believe that this is how we will achieve happiness down the road.

It’s really important, so let me say it again (gotta love the guy that always does this in meetings): You cannot achieve happiness in the future by enduring misery in the present. Happiness is simply not among the possible results of being miserable – how could it be?

If we care about happiness at work (and we should, because apart from all the benefits for business it’s where we spend the majority of our waking life) we need to focus on the work we do and how we do it. Anything else is just a fig leaf; a distraction from the real issues.


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3 thoughts on “Why Less Work And Unlimited Vacation Won’t Make You Happy

  1. I like this “rant”. Often these benefits are lipstick on a pig. Happiness at work should come from satisfying customer needs first. And these benefits can be a nice add-on to balance company goals with personal goals. So where should one start?

    PS: I think hats and caps are still cool ;)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the kind words and your input! I agree that happiness can be found along the value chain; I personally use the term “business experience” when aiming for the zone where superior customer experience and employee experience overlap.

      The question “where to start” probably has at least as many answers as there are organizations – my work as a consultant aims to uncover the insights their employees already have and to make those actionable:

      Not only do employees know their company better than any outsider ever could but working on the issues they consider important and building in their insights is the only way I know to reliably create a lasting change that makes a difference.

      And hey, if they want to wear hats, so be it. =)

      Liked by 1 person

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