Should We Behave at Work as We Do in our Private Life?

by

Or are they two distinct selves?

Woman skateboarding down an empty freeway

A lot of nonsense is talked about so-called work-life balance, as if work weren’t part of life. Still, we know what’s meant: we should try to strike a healthy balance between the time we spend at work and the time we devote to our private lives, including our personal relationships (time for family and friends) and our private pursuits (time for ourselves, whether browsing in cyberspace, reading, meditating, exercising or anything else we might like to do on our own).

Getting that balance right is a real challenge for many people, particularly those whose working lives bring them more satisfaction than their private lives. But it’s all life, which means that when it comes to the good life, there is no sensible distinction to be drawn between the way we behave at work and the way we behave in our private and social lives. I am me, wherever I happen to be, whoever I happen to be with, and whatever I happen to be doing. That’s one meaning of ‘integrity’: integrating our values with every aspect of our lives. If you want to know what my values really are, you need to see the total picture.

Getting that balance right is a real challenge for many people, particularly those whose working lives bring them more satisfaction than their private lives.

If that seems like a statement of the obvious, take a look at its implications. If a good life is marked by kindness, tolerance, compassion, respect for others and a willingness to respond to their needs, then that kind of commitment can’t be confined to one compartment of our lives. To say that a person is kind and loving at home or with their friends but a ruthless, exploitative operator at work is to say that this person is not committed to the good life. Being kind to the people we love is hardly a moral challenge.

The sickening gaps sometimes exposed between a person’s religious beliefs or declared moral convictions and the ruthlessness of their commercial dealings or their unequivocal surrender to the profit motive suggest that some of us have become adept at being selectively “good”. Yet the rule implies no work–life distinction: the concept of work–life balance includes the idea of moral balance – moral equivalence – between our working and personal lives.

Because some occupations seem inherently good, it’s tempting to assume that people who do those jobs are automatically devoted to the principles of the good life. The spiritual roots of the traditional professions, for example, lie in the concept of selflessness. Professions like medicine, law and accounting impose on their members a particular set of moral obligations that relate directly to the concept of a life lived for others. Professionals, as well as tradespeople and artisans, possess skills their clients lack, and their relationships with clients depend utterly on those clients being prepared to trust them. Such trust is based not only on the expectation of professional work of the highest possible standard, but also on the assumption that a true professional will always place the client’s interests ahead of their own. (No wonder the charge of professional misconduct, whether through poor-quality work or the charging of unconscionable fees, carries such opprobrium both within a profession and in the wider community.)

The concept of work–life balance includes the idea of moral balance – moral equivalence – between our working and personal lives.

Yet contradictions abound: some people who work in ‘good’ occupations may be quite insensitive, exploitative and self-absorbed in their private lives. (It’s a cliché in psychotherapy, for example, that the private lives of therapists are often more troubled or chaotic than their clients might imagine, for people who are supposed to know so much about personal relationships.) Conversely, some people who work in occupations we might hesitate to call ‘good’ or ‘worthwhile’ may nevertheless be passionately committed to the principles of the good life in private: kind and thoughtful to their friends, helpful to strangers, generous philanthropists.

A bloke I went to school with suddenly turned up at the golf club. Just the same. Sharp as a tack. Very funny. Very charming. We started playing together and one of my other mates took me aside after a few weeks of this and said, ‘Do you know who that is?’ I said of course I did, told him about being at school together, and so on. Turns out this bloke is some kind of corporate wheeler-dealer type with the reputation of a real bully-boy. All charm on the outside, ruthless as buggery underneath.

Thinks ethics is a county in England. Anyway, my mate says it’s only a matter of time before he’ll crash, big time. I wouldn’t know – I don’t understand that world at all. Meanwhile, nice as pie around the club. I did hear his wife left him, though – apparently she couldn’t reconcile his business dealings with the person she thought she’d married. She said he was like two different animals – one at work and one at home. She eventually decided that if he was a bastard at work, then that’s what he was – a bastard – and the rest was an act. Bit like watching how people drive – I always think you see the real person when they’re behind the wheel.

Most work done in our society is devoted to satisfying people’s basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, security, transport, education, recreation and entertainment. To the extent they meet those needs, all such occupations are ‘good’, and the economy would grind to a halt if everyone wanted to work in society’s breakdown gangs of assorted therapists, carers and advisors.

The apparent value of the work a person does is no guide to the intrinsic goodness of their life.

The apparent value of the work a person does is no guide to the intrinsic goodness of their life. It’s perfectly possible for rogues and bullies to do good work or even for supposedly good priests to sexually abuse children. A determination to lead a good life may naturally encourage us to seek worthwhile employment in an industry whose values and practices we can respect and embrace. But whatever job we happen to be doing, the good life demands that we behave at work as we behave in our private life; that we draw no ethical distinction between the two; that goodness becomes the touchstone, the hallmark, the benchmark for everything we do.

This is an edited extract from The Good Life by Hugh Mackay, published by Pan Australia, RRP $19.99. Available in all good bookstores and online.

The Good Life by Hugh Mackay

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