All the Lonely Workers

Why the social dimension of work is more important than ever.

June 14 th 2018

If you work full time for the same amount of years that your children are in the house (let’s say twenty-five), you will have spent fifty thousand hours with your colleagues. That is a lot of time. So much time that it’s possible that at the end of that quarter century, you will have spent more of your waking time at work than with your kids as they grew up.

My first response as I contemplated this was . . . depression.

The workplace is a primary—perhaps the primary—community for many people today, especially in a world where fewer people are married and having children.

I love my colleagues and I love my work. I really do. But when I think about what I consider most important in my life, my children outrank my colleagues by a wide margin. Why is it that an attention audit of my life reveals such a gap in action? Why is it that the most important job I will ever have—the shaping of young children into responsible, loving creatures—appears to garner less attention from me than the work I do at the office?

But after I got over the depression (my kids do need to eat, after all), my second response was to reflect on how deeply social work is. It strikes me that the workplace is a primary—perhaps the primary—community for many people today, especially in a world where fewer people are married and having children. You might not like your job, you might not care for your co-workers, you might even hate your boss, but your workplace is a community, and it’s shaping you. This is true whether you’re sitting in the corner office on the fifty-ninth floor with the big wide windows and the suicide doors, or cleaning the toilets in a truck stop.

Thinking of the workplace as a social environment is not, I’d wager, our first inclination. Our first inclination is to think of our work in economic terms. Much of the way our workplaces are structured, and the way we’re taught about the place of work in our lives, conditions us to believe that the workplace has limited influence on “who we really are.” Our jobs are usually physically distinct from our homes, and even if we work after hours, most people tend to spend relatively clearly defined segments of time at work. And most North Americans’ (save the increasingly smaller percentage who are unionized) legal relationships to their employers are structured as individual contracts. Our career paths are trod alone, not pilgrimages made in fellowship. The result is that many of us approach our work like the old Looney Tunes cartoon where we clock in and out of with a friendly “Morning, Ralph,” and then collect a paycheque.

But what if we recognized that a workplace is always more than economic—that it is a relational space that creates some kind of community? Might we be more intentional about the ethos of the office, the factory floor, the faculty lounge?

John Paul II has written that “human work has an ethical value of its own, which clearly and directly remains linked to the fact that the one who carries it out is a person, a conscious and free subject, that is to say a subject that decides about himself.” But even for many Christians, our vision of the “conscious and free subject” imagines that subject in the singular. We forget the indispensable corollary to Christianity’s embrace and affirmation of the individual: that “the Christian religion seeks personal human dignity in the social relationships of an organically integrated society.” This quotation, from Abraham Kuyper’s lecture addressing massive social unrest among European workers in the late nineteenth century, was aimed at society as a whole. But it can be applied on a subsidiary level in the workplace today just as well: the dignity of the worker does not arise out of an isolated self, but is made manifest in an emergent fashion from a web of social relationships within the workplace. These insights suggest two things.

First, the lack of work is likely to be a strong contributor to social isolation, especially in a society where other social institutions are breaking down. Because so much of our social life, and therefore our identity, is so closely linked to our work, the lack thereof will have an isolating effect.

Second, our failure to attend to the ethical dimension of work, and the social character of our dignity, will contribute to social isolation even within the workplace. This places special onus on those with authority in workplaces, but also presents workers with a challenge to see their workplaces as communities and to act in a way that takes that seriously.

Losing More than a Job

I mentioned that a comparison of time I spent at work with the time spent with my kids was depressing. But the truth is that not having work has been shown to lead to actual depression. Polls suggest that “unemployed Americans are more than twice as likely as those with full-time jobs to say they currently have or are being treated for depression.” And these social effects are not solely the loss of the workplace colleagues. Those who are unemployed long term spend significantly less time with friends and family as well, suggesting that the long-term unemployed don’t just find themselves cut off from their colleagues, but also find themselves becoming more isolated overall. Studies that show significant relationships between loss of job and divorce underscore these findings. And a recent study from Great Britain also noted that the reverse—moving from unemployment into employment—has significant positive effects on mental health, even when adjusting for direct selection of those prone to mental health issues. While there is still work to be done on understanding these links (i.e., the relative impact of loss of wages, social status, pre-existing propensities, community, etc.), taken as a whole studies seem to suggest that there is something about work (especially for men) and its loss that is closely tied with social connectedness or isolation. It turns out that the suicidal lyric scene set by Sufjan Stevens in his song “Flint (For the Unemployed and Underpaid)”—where the word “alone” is repeated again and again—is closer to real life than you might imagine.

These studies—most of which are done outside of the discipline of economics—should play a greater role in our discussions about what to do about unemployment. Too often the discussion of what to do at a policy level about unemployment is reserved for labour market economists who, while doing good work, are biased by their field to shape policies focused on income replacement. What would employment policy look like if work is about more than money? (Stay tuned to Cardus Work and Economics program for answers to that question over the coming years.)

What would employment policy look like if work is about more than money?

But it’s not just those who are out of work who find themselves socially isolated. Increasingly even those who have work find themselves isolated. As a recent Harvard Business Review article notes, a variety of factors—greater reliance on contract work, greater reliance on mediating technologies (read computer screens), workplace architecture that physically isolates workers, and others—have created workplaces where people at work are lonely even as they work side by side. And, in typical HBR fashion, it recommends “five deliberate steps that can help build healthy and productive relationships.” Now, I’m not going to knock any attempt at forging better relationships at work, but I think the article—and much of our culture’s attempts to “fight the loneliness epidemic” at work—don’t pay enough attention to how seeing the worker as a “free and conscious subject” who decides for herself might require structural adjustments to the firm.

Sing in Me, Muse

Before I unpack this, let me tell you a story.

I laid sod before I began to pretend to be an economist and edit a magazine. It was a good job. We worked long hours in bad weather, and did hard and dirty work. We laid wet sod in the cold and rain, picked rocks in thirty-degree weather (anything golf-ball sized or bigger) to prepare the fields for seeding, and even worked on a massive garbage dump that Toronto wanted to turn into a golf course. A few methane pipes here and there, dump truck upon dump trucks of topsoil, and our crew turned a mountain of trash into an idyllic suburban greenspace. We were at that job long enough that we began to call it The Sodyssey.

It was the type of job that parents will sometimes use to make a point about education: “Work hard so you don’t have to do that for the rest of your life.” It was hard. It was extremely dirty and often uncomfortable, and it is very likely that my body would not have held up in the long run. But I still loved it. One of the main reasons I still think so fondly of the job so many years later, despite its obvious physical drawbacks, is that the workplace created by my boss and my colleagues was a genuine community where my humanity seemed to be the point of the job as much as turning brown fields into green ones. In my boss’s and colleague’s commitment to our humanity, what emerged was a just workplace community.

I’ve often thought about that workplace, and have tried to nail down—HBR style—the five points that made it such a satisfying place to work. I haven’t been successful. What I have been able to identify, though, are a few things that exist more on the level of ethos than anything else.

The Feel of a Social Workplace

First, there was a sense that the work we were doing was good in itself. The fact that I and my colleagues referred to ourselves as “reverse locusts” was an indication that, as banal as it was to the passerby who yelled “greenside up!” from their air-conditioned car, we saw our work as having a living integrity. Our crew, even in the midst of thirty-two-degree-Celsius weather, saw our work as reversing a plague—an embodiment of the first few verses of Isaiah 35, even in the midst of a general lack of soul in the places we were working. This was a sentiment shared from the top all the way down to the guy watering the sod at the end of the day. When we were done, we could look back and imagine that the land we’d worked would be glad and rejoice to have been covered with living grass, even, and sometimes especially, if it was in an industrial park that appeared so much like a desert otherwise.

Second, we were expected to work hard. It was never spoken, but among the crew there was a sense in which everyone was expected to “keep up.” This wasn’t Darwinian—indeed, the same crew would pick up the slack for a colleague who was sore or having a rough day—but we didn’t tolerate those who shirked or tried to do the least. I remember a similar ethos among a group of waste collectors whom I had the privilege to represent in my days as a union representative. They all worked extremely hard, doing very dirty work. Those who had the respect of their peers would experience tremendous amounts of assistance from their colleagues when it was required; but if you were seen as someone who shirked in such a way as to force someone to help you, you would find a circle of silent backs facing you as you came into the shop. And while the boss expected us to work hard, the ethos was not driven from the top down. Our boss would create a rough outline for us of what we needed to get done in the day, but the majority of this ethos came from those of us who had no direct authority in the firm.

This was encouraged by the fact that we were paid well and were treated with dignity. We received what all of us—university students most of us, but our foreman was a man with a family to keep—considered a just wage. We felt that we were generously paid and that it was just for us to be generous with our pace of work. And our interactions with our employer and those in authority were conducted with dignity and an inherent respect for us as people, not just tools to be used. What’s most fascinating is that, contrary to the Marxian concern about alienation, we all had a sense of what the firm was earning with each load of sod. We knew the price, we knew our wages, we knew the rough cost of the capital, and could calculate what we were helping the firm earn each day. In a sense, the openness about the business model, and our clear understanding of our place within it, encouraged a sense of ownership in the success of the company, even though we didn’t have any equity in it.

Our culture’s attempts to fight loneliness at work might require structural adjustments to the firm. And key among those is a dismantling of the concept of “management.”

We all felt that we had a “place within it.” We weren’t a unionized firm—at least not in the legal sense of the term—but there was a high degree of solidarity among the workers, and between the workers and the boss (a family, in this case) who directed our work. Even in cases where dispute arose, there was a sense in which addressing it was seen as a communal issue, rather than a simple contractual matter between one worker and the boss. Where did this solidarity come from?

Lessons for a Lonely Workplace

Thinking through what contributed to this solidarity can, I think, provide some guidance for owners, managers, and workers who want their workplaces to be genuine communities.

The first element is that the owners were themselves hard workers, and we often found ourselves shoulder to shoulder with them. It was itself a small-to-midsize firm, which prevented huge levels of disembodying bureaucracy from getting in the way of relationships, but that too wasn’t quite it. The owners were extremely modest in their living, and generous in their giving to causes both secular and religious so workers did not feel that their labour was being used to fund someone else’s ego. Closer to the mark, I think, is what took place as we worked and broke from work. Daily—whether we worked in the fields or on a site—we would take breaks in which we would sit, share food (the company had a tradition of having some sort of daily baked good and coffee), and talk. This conversation began with work, and meandered around to anything from politics to hockey to children and family life to, often, the meaning of life. In many ways, these breaks were a distillation of a workplace culture that embodied the most important insight from John Paul II’s Christian social teaching on work:

The basis for determining the value of human work is not primarily the kind of work being done but the fact that the one who is doing it is a person. The sources of the dignity of work are to be sought primarily in the subjective dimension, not in the objective one. . . . In the final analysis it is always man [the Latin here is hominem, plural homines, or people] who is the purpose of the work, whatever work it is that is done by man—even if the common scale of values rates it as the merest “service,” as the most monotonous even the most alienating work.

Those in the socialist labour movement often point to the alienation of workers from the fruits of their labour as a source of workplace isolation. That is, alienation is understood in economic terms. The worker is separated from the full fruits of their labour by a boss, who takes it from her. But there is more to it than that. When you work in a place where your ability to “decide for yourself” about what to do and how to do it is severely constrained, when you are monitored like a dairy cow in a factory barn, your response is likely to find a way to hide from those directing you. Workers who are surveilled—which is effectively a system in almost complete opposition to the idea of the worker as a conscious subject (surveillance means you can’t be trusted to decide for yourself)—see themselves as “unnoticed as individuals by management.” This in turn leads the employees to see their managers and their techniques “as coercive and to engage in invisibility practices to attempt to go unseen and remain unnoticed,” as a recent study notes. These self-isolating habits are highly reminiscent of the unemployed worker who isolates himself from others.

And while this might be a step too far for some, I think a similar thing might be true for CEOs. A manager in a company in which the boss is considered above and apart from workers who function as tools, and who is herself subject to forces well beyond her control, is likely to find herself similarly isolated at the deepest level. This is true even if the power that accompanies the authority serves as a type of drug against feeling the fullest effects of it.

I said earlier that our culture’s attempts to fight loneliness at work might require structural adjustments to the firm. And key among those is a dismantling of the concept of “management." Our attempts at “managing people” assumes a view of the human person that is dehumanizing. The word “manage” is itself derived from horse training, which gives some indication of the view of people that it takes. This is not to suggest that a firm—and yes, a for-profit firm is absolutely social—can only be social if it looks like an anarcho-syndicalist commune. What it does suggest is that there is an important—I might go so far as to say fundamental—conceptual difference between an office of authority within a company and that of management. Every community needs proper offices with authority to thrive, and the anarcho-syndicalist commune is a terrible way to put bread on the table. But if metaphors are thing we live by, a governing structure premised on one person putting an animal through its paces is not likely to be one that fits with a vision premised on the human person as the end of work. Firms do need to find ways in which employees are given a voice—an effective voice—in shaping their work if they are to structurally address social isolation at work and, moreover, if they want to be communities that meet the test of dignity imposed by a Christian view of work.

There Is Dignity in the Union

Readers sniffing out hints of unionism here can trust their noses. It strikes me that a healthy antidote to isolation at work is to pursue the formation of an organization emerging out of the workplace whose core function is found in binding workers together to achieve a collective end. And yes, I think that absolutely requires that those workers create and exert power. But, as the above paragraph is a warning to managers for uncritically adopting dehumanizing metaphors of the workplace, let me note that those who can only conceive of unionism in the terms that we in North America have experienced unions—where unions are founded in opposition to management—should think twice. In many (though certainly not all) cases today, unions themselves—because they can’t conceive of them in any other terms than power—mirror management and function in ways that encourage isolation.

In the face of massive exploitation of workers and socialist calls for revolution in the late nineteenth century, Abraham Kuyper noted that the “beautiful word ‘social’ shouldn’t be considered the private preserve of the social democrats.” The boss is a human too, and our goal should be to use the power of workers as a tool of service aimed at a workplace where the boss is the workers’ partner in making the endeavours shared by both worker and boss as fruitful as possible. I suppose what I’m saying is, with apologies to Billy Bragg, that the power in the union comes not from the law, or the picketer’s cudgel, but from their dignity.

Both of my suggestions here are likely to be mocked as naïve and unworkable by workers and managers alike. In my time as a union representative, I constantly heard two recurring themes. Other unions told us that our imagining there was a non-antagonistic relationship between the boss and the union made us “patsies” for the employer. At the same time, I routinely heard from bosses that the workers just needed to do what they were told, and that we were interfering with their relationship with their workers. Both criticisms reflect a failure of imagination that stands in the way of genuine workplace community. The same failure of imagination contributes to social isolation in the workplace. If we want workers to be less lonely, we will have to start by reimagining the possibility of a workplace community that sees and honours human persons in their entirety, and imagines their full flourishing as the end of work.


Brian Dijkema is Program Director, Work and Economics at Cardus and senior editor with Comment. Prior to joining Cardus, Brian worked for almost a decade in labour relations in Canada after completing his master's degree with Cardus Senior Fellow, Jonathan Chaplin. He has also done work on international human rights, with a focus on labour, economic, and social rights in Latin America and China.