Essay: Work and iBeing

Essay: Work and iBeing

What a profound image we were confronted with recently: Steve Jobs, the instigator of Apple's millennial success, diminished in form and ill of health. The sight of this seemingly indestructible King of Technology forced into physical submission by the pancreatic cancer that has plagued his body represents not only a life story but one of the great paradoxes of our time.

Thanks to Jobs, Apple and its iProducts, we are more connected than ever, in a state of constant hyper-activity, reachability and productivity. But the health implications may yet prove to be akin to the once medically acceptable practise of smoking; not only in a cancer-causing sense, but for our overall wellbeing. With its capitalist overlord at the wheel, technology has given rise to lifestyles that we were simply not built to live, and in the frenzy, we are losing a sense of the purpose and value of work and human-being.

While it's arguable that the Western preoccupation with our own wellbeing is the source of some of the developing world's woes, the reality is that women and men, and young people, are struggling in this hyped-up digital world in which we live to bring balance and functionality into their lives. Without the iPhone, its technological cousins the iPad and apps and arch nemesis BlackBerries and the like, you are deemed out of touch.

These tools certainly have their value but the idea, the fear of being out of the loop, of losing social and professional momentum – in a world where visibility and image is commercial capital – is what technology writer Nick Farrell of, rather unmercifully, attributes Jobs' declining health:

"In a normal universe, Jobs would have quit and spent loads of money getting better. However the cult of personality which had developed around Apple had forbidden that. Even rumours that Apple's messiah was under the weather was enough to send the outfit's stock price falling. The belief, which had been cultivated by Jobs, was that the business could not do without him. As a result health reports were suppressed."

Coupled with the "Strenuous Life" mentality ushered in by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, of pushing oneself beyond reasonable limits in pursuit of a life commensurate with greatness, which translated into the 1990s “work hard, play hard” corporate philosophy and before it Dan Widen's "Just Do It" lifestyle slogan for Nike in 1988, the flipside of the competitive rise to professional success driven by America has been the pursuit of downtime, of "me time", of reduced stress, techno detoxes and "4-hour work weeks", all which have given rise to profitable industries, to offset the rising creep of noxious health ailments and omnipresence of technology associated with our terminal affluenza. 

Recent studies into Asian nations that have become more Westernised (read: Americanised) and undergone rapid economic growth, including Korea and India, have found increasing incidence of risk factors for heart disease, diabetes and stroke with risk factors including abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar, low levels of "good" HDL cholesterol and high triglycerides (a type of blood fat). Furthermore, researchers in Britain have found that working more than 11 hours a day, rather than a standard seven to eight hour day, increases the risk of heart disease by 67%.

"We have shown that working long days is associated with a remarkable increase in risk of heart disease," Professor Mika Kivimaki of University College London's epidemiology and public health department told The Guardian. "Considering that including a measurement of working hours in a GP interview is so simple and useful, our research presents a strong case that it should become standard practice. [The research] could also be a wake-up call for people who overwork themselves, especially if they already have other risk factors."

Writing on Jobs, tech bloggers were quick to celebrate the technician's cerebral feats, simple design aesthetic, entrepreneurial spirit (he co-founded Apple in a garage in 1976, was ousted in 1985 and re-hired in 2006) and attention to detail.

"Like a great conductor, he assembled a vast orchestra of skilled players who obeyed him with complete fealty. When he tapped the podium, all noises ceased. Like Solomon, he commanded his minions to undertake great projects and summoned them to show him the results. If they fell short, he sent them back again and again until they met his exacting standards. Projects could be late, but they could never be lousy. Nothing was sent to market until it was ready."

The idea of dying for the cause, of perfecting one's craft, can lend our work lives a certain admirable nobility; but what if in the process we are missing the point? Is it more the case that the work we choose to do, how we go about it and the outcomes we expect, must be in alignment with our mental, spiritual and physical needs and beliefs? And how can we better use technology to service this realignment, as opposed to being victims of the corporate iSlave trade and its commensurate distractions?

"I think we have recognised that our lifestyles are out of balance, that something isn't quite right and lots of incredibly smart people – scientists, researchers, thinkers and the like – are all saying the same thing: "balance"," says WellBeing magazine editor Chelsea Hunter. "We can live in a world of technology and appreciate the benefits it offers (how great is it that if you miss an episode Crownies or Doctor Who you can catch up on iView at your leisure) but we don't need to be ruled by technology or convenience."

In a professional sense, the way in which we organise our work tasks, the approach we take to our duties, the workplace environment, our superiors and our co-workers also have bearing on our overall health. A 2008 Medibank report, The Cost of Workplace Stress in Australia, notes that workplace stress has been linked to a wide range of health conditions, including anxiety, cardiovascular disease and gastrointestinal disorders.

But each industry, too, has its cultural and social norms, and while our skills might fit the bill, our personality types or beliefs might not. In this sense, the appropriation of career roles by popular TV shows and movies, and the glamorisation of certain careers in the media without consideration of the "other" factors we don't see – the artist struggling to pay the rent; the model rejected at a casting call; the solitary writer; the techno genius suffering pancreatic cancer; the politician with depression; the businesswoman who doesn't enjoy her kids – lead to a certain fantasisation that can lead us to despair (I want the career she's having!).

"Being a professional illustrator or photographer is a full-time job that goes beyond the mainstream nine-to-five: tough deadlines mean working through the night," say the authors of Work/Life 2: the UPPERCASE Directory. "Flashes of inspiration can happen anytime, so your sketchbook is an indispensable appendage.You might spend innumerable hours secluded in your studio, or perhaps you’re a regular at the local coffee shop. Chances are, your work and your life are one and the same and you wouldn’t have it any other way." 

In his brilliant but ultimately bleak 2010 book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Alain de Botton (a founder of The School of Life) presents the premise that, "Work makes us. Without it we are at a loss; in work we hope to have a measure of control over our lives. Yet for many of us, work is a straitjacket from which we cannot free ourselves." More encouragingly, he writes:

When does a job feel meaningful? Whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others. Though we are often taught to think of ourselves as inherently selfish, the longing to act meaningfully in our work seems just as stubborn a part of our make-up as our appetite for status or money. It is because we are meaning-focused animals rather than simply materialistic ones that we can reasonably contemplate surrendering security for a career helping to bring drinking water to rural Malawi or might quit a job in consumer goods for one in cardiac nursing, aware that when it comes to improving the human condition a well-controlled defibrillator has the edge over even the finest biscuit…

But we should be wary of restricting the idea of meaningful work too tightly, of focusing on the doctors, the nuns of Kolkata or the Old Masters. There can be less exalted ways to contribute to the furtherance of the collective good and it seems that making a perfectly formed stripey chocolate circle which helps to fill an impatient stomach in the long morning hours between nine o’clock and noon may deserve its own secure, if microscopic, place in the pantheon of innovations designed to alleviate the burdens of existence.

While the London riots gave rise to the dystopian world view that there is only discontent to be found amongst idle youth chasing capitalist ideals beyond their means, that this state of being lacking purpose and direction leads to the ransacking of shops and stores and cherished places of work, there is hope amongst Generation Y who are motivated "by fun, work satisfaction, social responsibility, corporate integrity and honesty, work opportunity and not by money", according to but also in the broader social movement towards aligning our lives with those things we value most: family, relationships, home: hence the rise of the nostalgia movement (see Channel Ten's revival of Young Talent Time; the rise of crafting; the increasing popularity of Frankie and the emergence of Slow and Treadlie magazines).

"Perhaps the speed of technological advancement has led to the realisation that work has overtaken our lives," writes New Idea columnist, psychologist Jo Lamble, in the magazine's latest edition. "We're always 'on' and forever multi-tasking. So it comes as no surprise that many mums are beginning to reassess the hours they work outside the home. They're thinking of ways to earn money and be there for the kids. Better maternity leave benefits are allowing new mums to stay home longer – a move welcomed by women who struggled with wanting another child but couldn't afford the time away from work. Motherhood is finally being given the value it deserves."

In a Christian context, apart from the idea that we were each created for some unique part of God's grand plan, the focus being loving and serving Him and one another, ultimately rewarded for our earthly toils in Heaven, we see quite plainly on a practical level that God is an advocate for six days' work, with adequate rest from sundown and the taking of the Sabbath day off. Jesus was not opposed to taking time out in his three years of ministry, seeking solitude, reflection and rest when the occasion arose even as people pursued him.

But while his disciples were no doubt troubled in their toils, the very purpose of their work provided them with the discipline and incentive to continue. Their whole mentality was centred around service rather than gain: what can I give as apposed to what can I receive? For us, this might translate into how can I make the most, right now, of my position, possessions, income and profession?

Talking to a single, 25-year-old registered nurse who works at a large public hospital recently, she lamented that she was not permitted to go over and above the requirements of the job – sign on and off and do as you’re told. But every fibre in her being wants to do a bit more, spend more time with each patient (they’re people after all!). Perhaps the key in this case is to simply enjoy the pace, savour the feeling of industriousness, the beautiful privilege of paid employment, the simple daily interactions with others and make the most of one's post?

As Dallas Wallard says in his book, Personal Religion, Public Reality?, "Life is primarily devoted to work. All legitimate work is devoted to the creation of value, of what is good to a lesser or greater degree. That was God's plan. He not only creates; He creates creators – you and me. One of the saddest things in human life is the desecration of work in a loveless world."

The restoration of the professions, trades and crafts – and the world of work – to a place of dignity through which can be found contentment, purpose and practical ways to spend one's days, as well as the financial means to give back and health to enjoy the fruits of our labours, was one of the key elements of Labor's 2010 'Moving Forward' election campaign, one which ultimately lends itself to increased productivity (in theory at least): "I believe in hard work, I believe in the benefits and dignity of work, I believe in what comes as an individual when you do your best and you earn your keep."

Hard work, off the sheep's back, had been one of the foundations of our country, alongside a certain antipathy towards 'high-brow' professions that produce less sweaty brows, more furrowed ones. But with work occupying so much of life, perhaps it's time we contemplate the meaning and sanctity of work and the role it plays in both our identity and satisfaction in life. In God's economy, any work done for the good of man and glory of one's creator is worthy of respect; more so that which goes unnoticed by others but counts towards the Kingdom because it is done in love with purpose and precision.

In conclusion to his exploration of labour, de Botton writes that in the event we have missed the point, "Our work will at least have distracted us, it will have provided the perfect bubble in which to invest our hopes for perfection, it will have focused our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it will have given us a sense of mastery, it will have made us respectably tired, it will have put food on the table. It will have kept us out of greater trouble."

In considering the degree to which we allow technology and work encroach on our lives, Hunter suggests a practical approach: "We've recognised that we need to do things like cook a meal from scratch, feel the grass beneath our bare feet, have plants indoors because they're lovely to look at and keep our air clean, or give our minds space to calm down and be free of constant stimulation. These provide a counter-balance to "modern" life. I guess what modern living comes down to is this: be aware. Look at how you live, the decisions you make and why you make them and figure out if these make you happy and healthy. If not, make small, simple changes until you're more in balance."  

While avarice and apathy and unfair systems (such as the institutionalisation of pay disparity) attempt to take away from the true value and joy of our toils, and the over-investment of ourselves in our work can be to the detriment of ourselves and those we care for most, we cannot underestimate the contentment to be found in a job well done, whether cleaning houses, sewing dresses or delivering an article on deadline, and the wonderful feeling of exhaustion that accompanies the end of a hard day's work as we lay to sleep, the unrelenting iPhone laid to rest, recharging for the next day's events. 

Girl With a Satchel


jen. said...

amazing article, erica. you put so much love, mental energy and intellect into this. thank you.