Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Become an OU student

Download this course

Share this free course

Employee engagement
Employee engagement

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

Activity 1.2 The meaning of work

Activity 2

Timing: Allow around 60 minutes


Purpose: to consider the different meanings that individuals can derive from work.

Task A

Read the following short extract from Alain de Botton’s book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work.

Printed item icon

The pleasures and sorrows of work

De Botton, A. in Henley, J (2009) ‘The new work order’ The Guardian, 24 March.

[ … ]

Nowadays workers have to be ‘motivated’, meaning they have – more or less – to like their work. So long as workers had only to retrieve stray ears of corn from the threshing-room floor or heave quarried stones up a slope, they could be struck hard and often, with impunity and benefit. But the rules had to be rewritten with the emergence of tasks whose adequate performance required their protagonists to be, to a significant degree, content, rather than simply terrified or resigned. Once it became evident that someone who was expected to draw up legal documents or sell insurance with convincing energy could not be sullen or resentful, the mental wellbeing of employees began to be a supreme object of managerial concern.

The new figures of authority must involve themselves with childcare centres and, at monthly get-togethers, animatedly ask their subordinates how they are enjoying their jobs so far. Responsible for wrapping the iron fist of authority in a velvet glove is, of course, the human resources department. Thanks to these unusual bodies, many offices now have in place a zero-tolerance policy towards bullying, a hotline for distressed employees, forums in which complaints may be lodged against colleagues and (I know of one office) tactful procedures by which managers can let a team member know his breath smells.

Contrived as these rituals may seem, it is the very artificiality that guarantees their success, for the laboured tone of group exercises and away-day seminars allows workers to protest that they have nothing whatsoever to learn from submitting to such disciplines. Then, like guests at a house party who at first mock their host’s suggestion of a round of Pictionary, they may be surprised to find themselves, as the game gets under way, able to channel their hostilities, identify their affections and escape the agony of insincere chatter. Power has not disappeared entirely in modern offices; it has merely been reconfigured. It has become ‘matey’. It is by posing as regular employees that executives stand their best chances of preserving their seniority.

[ … ]

Though we think of the point of work as being primarily about money, these dark economic times only emphasise the extent to which generating money is an excuse to do other things, to rise from bed in the morning, to talk authoritatively in front of overhead projectors, to plug in laptops in hotel rooms and to chat in the office kitchen. Long before we ever earned any money, we were aware of the necessity of keeping busy: we knew the satisfaction of stacking bricks, pouring water into and out of containers and moving sand from one pit to another, untroubled by the greater purpose of our actions. To view our upcoming meetings as being of overwhelming significance, to make our way through conference agendas marked ‘11 a.m. to 11.15 a.m.: coffee break’ and not think too much about the wider purpose – maybe all of this, in the end, is the particular wisdom of the office.

Office work distracts us, it focuses our immeasurable anxieties on a few relatively small-scale and achievable goals, it gives us a sense of mastery, it makes us respectably tired, it puts food on the table. It keeps us out of greater trouble.

Task B

Now watch the following video where de Botton expands on his ideas about the role of work in society.

Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

If you are reading this course as an ebook, you can access this video here: Why do we have HR departments?: Alain de Botton [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Having watched the clip, reflect on the following questions:

  1. What are de Botton’s key points about changes in societal attitudes to work over time?
  2. Do you agree with his suggestions about the importance of work today?
  3. What do you think about his argument that work provides a necessary distraction from the rest of life?

Task C

As we have seen, de Botton provides a wryly cynical account of the modern workplace. However, it is worth reminding ourselves that for many work remains hard physical labour suffered through economic necessity as we see in the following documentary.

Watch the next film, where workers in France account for their experiences in the car, food, fishery and electronics industries. What do you think it means to be ‘engaged’ with work in these environments? Note that this clip is in French with English subtitles.

Download this video clip.Video player: Part 1
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Show transcript|Hide transcript
Part 1
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
Download this video clip.Video player: Part 2
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Show transcript|Hide transcript
Part 2
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


De Botton suggests that the ‘problem’ of engagement is a modern phenomenon. In the past, we worked because we had to. Work was hard and hours were long. Questions of engagement in this context were almost irrelevant as the result of not working hard was severe physical deprivation.

‘Management’, such as it existed, simply saw its role as ensuring that levels of output were maintained. To use the common adage, management was all stick and no carrot.

Now, according to de Botton, there is something of an inversion. Management is now so preoccupied with ‘motivation’ and ‘engagement’ through the soft rhetoric of the HR department, that work has become almost more pleasurable than the rest of our life.

Moreover, we seek meaning and self-identity through our work. We have expectations that our goals should be realised through this work and are dissatisfied if they are not.

However, de Botton’s account of the gentle ironies of modern office life does ignore the large ‘hidden’ sector of the labour market in which work exerts a real physical cost and engagement is simply the result of economic necessity.

The final video offered a testament to the experiences of a handful of workers in France. However, we should also remember the harsh working environments faced by many workers in the developing world, many of whom are making the cheap products that sustain our modern economies and enable us to enjoy more pleasant work.