Work and labour have been discussed in depth in religious texts and by philosophers. The Indian and the oriental philosophies of work look at work itself as the purpose of work. The Bhagavad Gita says: “You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work.” The Gita also espouses the importance of doing work that is good for the world. It says: “The wise work for the welfare of the world, without thought for themselves.” This speaks about the social good or the purpose of any job. The Confucian thoughts on work also emphasise honesty, loyalty, and hard work as central to a human being. They also expected individuals to work hard towards the betterment of their groups, organisation and eventually, towards nation-building. Chinese management still embodies a lot of focus on Confucian values and often looks at the good beyond individualistic achievement and goals as central.
Confucianism promotes five virtues: ren, or benevolence; yi, or righteousness; li, propriety; zhi, or wisdom; and xin, or trustworthiness. Confucian managers are expected to be caring, moral, maintain their dignity, have wisdom and be true to their word. The “gentleman” of Confucius was expected to live up to a higher standard; a standard that isn’t, however, always seen in Chinese management today. Certainly, this aspect of the Confucian work philosophy emphasises sacrifice and focus on what is right for the overall good. The articulation of organisational values and the nudge to employees to align to the management’s thoughts are relevant in the Confucian philosophy.
Some of the most influential thoughts on labour and work that have shaped the western work culture were from Aristotle and Plato. The terms “praxis” and “poiesis” were used by Aristotle in this context. Praxis is very similar to the oriental or Indian philosophy of work. The work itself is the end. In poiesis, the focus is on the outcome of the work for others, and for oneself. Poiesis also underlies the focus on individual goals and the efforts put to achieve them.
The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle distinguished between praxis, which is action done for its own sake, and poiesis, or activity aimed at the production of something useful. The end outcome is given importance in the western view of work, characterised by goal and result-orientation.
At a more practical level, poiesis in the current work context is closely aligned with the performance-oriented culture. The central aspect of this also boils down to what an individual can produce as output or as difference to the firm’s output. Aristotle also focused on the “human element” at the workplace. Aspects like trust, happiness and even personal ambitions of growth and development were given importance in his musings. He also thought that while it is important to do work for self-development, overwork can create mediocrity and may not lead to evolved human beings that can help society. There was great significance given by Aristotle to evolved thinking and reflection as part of growth. This is antithetic to the Judeo–Christian approach towards work and labour, which looks at work as a suffering for the sins committed by humans. Work here is an act of redemption.
However, the practice of Christianity from an economic value-addition perspective was also characterised by economic efficiency, dignity, camaraderie among fellow workers and an underlying foundation of love and care. This was also a departure from the Greek thinking that only a few are entitled to higher-order work, the others being slaves. While organisations have strived to create a uniform approach towards everyone at work by means of various practices, the fundamental approach to life and work embedded in various cultures has a huge influence on how people treat work.
In recent times, the Japanese approach of ikigai has got a lot of importance. Ikigai is one’s reason for existence. It gives a person a sense of purpose. Deeply embedded in the traditional Japanese culture, ikigai encourages people to find out what gives meaning to them. Finding one’s ikigai also gives one direction.
An article on finding ikigai at work focused on the following aspects: ikigai looks at what you are good at, how you can put that to use in the world, how it can reward you and how it can be linked to what you really love doing. For ikigai to be articulated for everyone calls for effort. Ikigai for one lies at the intersection of the answers to the four aforementioned questions. You might be doing something that you really like doing, but if it does not yield you an income, it might not be easy to sustain. Similarly, if the work that you are doing is something you are good at but has no relevance to the outside world, keeping up the effort or even finding it meaningful can be difficult. The Japanese philosophy of ikigai has been found to have a tremendous impact on individuals. Studies have shown that individuals who reported experiencing ikigai at work are happier and even reported fewer health problems than those who did not.
Japan’s need for development and growth also led to individuals putting in a lot of effort at work. The cultural aspects of work were overwhelmed by the needs of the country. The term karoshi started getting more attention in the country’s work context. Karoshi meant “death by overwork”. Three
reasons were believed to be behind this work culture in Japan.
• Japan’s desire to be on the same level as its western counterparts
• Collectivist mindset
• Availability of convenient services
While the overall good of the nation is the purpose of its people overworking, it can be extremely damaging if individuals are not able to cope with it.
Another interesting aspect of a strong cultural tradition is the aspect of sisu, which in Finnish means strength or perseverance at a task that for some may seem crazy to undertake, almost hopeless. Sisu also contains the concept of fortitude and resilience – society considers it respectable when someone sails through very tough times, and the same is applicable in the realm of work too. It also means embracing difficulties and adapting to the same. The major takeaway of the sisu concept in modern work life is that building resilience can help us to stick on through difficult times and concentrate on what we want to achieve.
Excerpted with permission from Purposeful: Finding Greater Meaning and Engagement at Work, Sandeep K Krishnan, Penguin.