So here it is. Blue Monday. Officially the most depressing day of the year. We say ‘officially’, but like the idea of ‘Body Odour’ its common usage hides the fact that it was originally created as part of a 2005 PR campaign. For Sky’s travel channel. The whole idea of Blue Monday is couched in a pseudo-mathematical equation which includes factors like the weather, levels of debt, time since Christmas, low levels of motivation and, apparently, an unspecified variable known simply as ‘D’. Yet for many people, work always appears to get them down. Negative attitudes to our working lives have been consistent in the way work has been reflected by artists for at least the past hundred years.
From Charlie Chaplin’s oppressed and endangered little tramp in Modern Times to Terry Gilliam’s fetid offices in Brazil. From Edward Hopper’s portrayals of the distances between workers to the cool symmetry of Andreas Gursky’s photography of offices and factories. From Orwell’s depiction of the future as a human face under a patriarchal jackboot to Tom Wolfe’s rich, successful but miserable and amoral masters of the universe in Bonfire of the Vanities. It is a worldview reflected in the media, where happiness writes white and what news there remains, is generally bad news fed by the agenda-furthering doom-mongering press releases of vested interests.
To some extent, business has always been looked at as an extension of warfare. Managers still pay good money to hear how the thinking of 2500 year old Chinese general Sun Tzu can be applied at the likes of Sunshine Desserts. The upshot of this macho executive warmongering is that the commercial lexicon is full of talk of attacking competitors, outflanking manoeuvres and offensive strategy. From here it is a small step in the face of current economic uncertainties to talk of attrition and collateral damage.
So far so grim. But over the past few years, a new vocabulary has emerged that embraces softer notions of creativity, intellect, freedom and – let’s not be coy – fun. And by fun, we’re not necessarily talking about David Brent fun, company endorsed silliness, obligatory bonding with colleagues and a slide to play on, but rather a more general enjoyment in work.
Of course, there is a balance to be struck. The challenge in striking this balance lies in how to create the right environment for people to enjoy themselves, to empower them, to let them laugh and talk and make their own decisions. But without losing sight of the fact that what you do is a business and that everybody has a job to do.
The workplace has an important role to play in getting this balance right. How you design an office can encourage people to enjoy their day in a number of ways. For too long now the work that most people do has been portrayed by firms with a product to sell, artists and writers as oppressive and potentially harmful drudgery and by management theorists as a form of warfare. But our experience of work is a long way from those depressing characterisations. Approached in the right way, work is enjoyable. It’s good to be around people you like. Good to do something worthwhile and rewarding. And good to have your life and time structured.
Most of the stories we read about work paint a grim picture of its deprivations. But this is a distortion of the reality. In most ways and for most people work is either a good thing or, at the very least, better than its alternative.