‘Yep, I’m working here as a volunteer for a month. Forty hours a week. And that makes me realise again how true it is that I can’t participate in society anymore, and why I’m considered unfit for work. Of course, I do a lot of volunteer work at home as well. But a regular job, I’m not fit for that anymore.’
‘After almost fifteen years, my manager and I have come to the conclusion that there is no future anymore for me within the company. So now, I am here to see if I could stay here for a while and work as a volunteer. I really want to find something else, instead of installing new computer programs or training people to use yet another Microsoft, Windows or other program update.’
‘I was a manager at a large company in the automobile sector. And one day, at the age of fifty-four, the light went off. I just couldn’t do it anymore. Just like that, without warning. I never really recovered from it, and still feel the shame I couldn’t make it till fifty-seven, the age I could have gone for early retirement. I lost all my confidence, I didn’t even dare to drive anymore, and I am still not as sharp as I once was, and that’s not only because of my age.’
This is a handful of personal stories I’ve come across in the last couple of weeks while visiting ecological communities and campsites on the road. All mainly Dutch people, who feel somehow that they have failed to meet the standards of daily and working life in the Dutch society. Some outcast through language, like the lady who’s unfit for work, or rejected (afgekeurd as we would say in Dutch) for a regular job.
Some wondered about the purpose of the continuous developments and improvements companies (and thus we ourselves) try to impose on us, just to make sure they survive and can keep on growing. And others who couldn’t cope with the stress anymore of making others do their work, or doing more work in less time with fewer colleagues.
I know it is not a new topic. It’s even a topic which, for quite some years now, has been getting quite a bit of attention. And the number of people with a burnout or difficulties to participate or cope with the stress will most likely increase in the coming years (also among young people). The literature, courses, coaching and conferences has almost become a sector of its own. And, like probably most of you, I’ve been working with or accompanying colleagues who have gone through similar difficult periods and have read quite a bit about the subject.
I’ve mainly been interested in the prevention or recovery at individual or organisational level, focused on interventions and providing support to reduce sick leave, make people fit and resilient (again) to be able to keep on going, or introducing small organisational changes to reduce the factors that put people at risk.
And now, while having this opportunity to look at this from a distance, from the outside in as it were, I see that despite its strengths, this perspective is also very exclusive. At least, for the people who have who left the traditional working arena, either by force or voluntarily. Also, the norms we set and the approach we take to keep our organisations and people ‘healthy’, can give those who can’t or don’t want to participate anymore the feeling that they have failed, or as if they are just operating on the edges of society instead of fully participating, like us, those who have a paid job.
Once again, I know this isn’t a new phenomenon, and it is something that’s always been around, and it is often a topic in news and other programmes.
So why write about it?
Because I find it striking, how we, or at least I, often unknowingly, inadvertently and unintentionally, by setting and adhering to certain norms, exclude others, and maybe even block the opportunity for viable alternatives. How innocent it might seem, speaking with some of the people I have met I also see that this line of reasoning has more impact than I thought.
And from the perspective of how we organise our work, I’m a keen follower of the ongoing discussion about whether we should keep on going the way we are going. Should we continue with unrestrained growth and innovation in which we seemed to be caught, putting effort into things that do not always lead to improved welfare and wellbeing but instead to more stress and the exclusion of all those who cannot or don’t want to fit with these rules of society?
I don’t know the answer of how we can do it differently; even so, I think it’s worthwhile to take the time and question whether this is really what we want, because I am sure it’s within our abilities to organise it differently, even if we don’t know yet how.