How is Work? Is it working?
The writer

How is Work? Is it working?

The International Workers Day (May Day) was celebrated globally with customary parades and festivities under the theme: "Ensuring safety and health at work in a changing climate". Whatever work we are engaged in must support us to take care of the earth we have been blessed with while using its resources and abundance to satisfy our basic human needs. 


The concept of work has witnessed tremendous change over the last couple of centuries. The recent transition has created significant challenges for many involved in work.

In the 2023 Gallup State of the Global Workplace Report, Ghana ranked as the 4th most stressful country for workers in sub-Saharan Africa. 

The General Secretary of the Trade Union Congress of Ghana, Dr Baah, was critical of the current living conditions of Ghanaian workers during the May Day celebrations. 

He recounted how the worsening macroeconomic conditions have affected wages, making it difficult for workers to enjoy a decent life. 

The events before the pandemic and living through the pandemic have prompted many to re-evaluate their relationship with work. 

The questions workers ask include: what work do I do, where do I work, how do I work, and who do I work for? May I suggest that these questions form the basis for new economic models workers can use to evaluate their relationship with work. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, economists defined labour – as a force of production that refers to the work people do to produce goods and services. 

Economists analysed labour using the traditional demand and supply concepts and how they influence price. Alfred Marshall defines economics as "the study of mankind in the ordinary business of life". His definition of Economics means that we can pay attention to labour in all its forms. 

In this “ordinary business of life”, we can speak about labourers and their aspirations for a better quality of life, meaning, and purpose, and how their faith affects their full expression of what life means to them. 

The challenge here is that labour shows up in the workplace to contribute, and at the same labour is engaged in the ordinary business of life. Work, from the point of view of labour, is one of the avenues to experience and express oneself in the ordinary business of life. 

Not long ago, labourers expected to show up at work, carry out a specific task with exact terms and then come home to experience the other aspect of life. In the factory, we can train workers, hire them, and implement basic processes to hold them accountable for their expected output. Adam Smith’s division of labour was at work. 

If labour has a target to produce 12 pins a day, one could assess whether 12 pins have been produced. These significant discoveries led to industrialisation, which has given us so much of what has been created in our world today. 

It created modern factories that have taken away back-breaking work in most places. Of course, the mega factories also created negative externalities. We can conclude that though we are not living in utopia, the extra leisure hours promised due to the division of labour are available now for taking. 

In some countries, there is a movement to reduce the working week from 5 to 4 days. Workers may use the additional day to pursue other life goals, which do not necessarily involve what may be formally called work. 

The global production system in place today allows workers to generate a lifetime of income from a decade of work and decide not to be labourers again but consumers for the rest of life. 

This opportunity, available to many people, was inconceivable just a century ago. It has made it possible for the top 1% of earners to have more wealth than the bottom 50% of the global population while the poorest half owns just 0.75% of the world’s wealth.

Today, not many labourers spend their time making pins in the same way 100 years ago. In the post-industrial world, sometimes the work of labour is to show empathy to a customer in a given situation for a reward (still practising division of labour). 

Currently, there is no standard model to measure accurately the level of empathy displayed by two labourers toward a customer in a given situation. It is unclear how such a measurement would determine the reward for effort, as was done for 12 pins compared to 15 pins. 

The new differences in the quality of work cannot be accounted for instantaneously and rewarded. There is a significant difference between the production of 12 pins and the production of empathy, though both are required today. 


Therefore, when work is done remotely and aided by artificial intelligence, managers need new economic models for incentivising, analysing, rewarding, and managing the working environment and for leading workers engaged in this modern, post-industrial production process. 

Though the standard economic challenges, such as increasing productivity and attaining full employment exist and have to be solved, the conditions are vastly different. 

Labour is now looking for engagement, meaning and purpose. These "new objectives" were not incorporated into labour economic models I studied as recently as over two decades ago. There are no generally accepted new tools, concepts and methodologies for dealing with situations. 

This transitionary period is causing severe stress and pain in the workplace. 


Currently, there are new questions leaders must answer alongside the traditional economic challenges we have been grappling with for decades. Yet, our knowledge has not kept pace with these changes. 

The responsibility of creating conditions for job creation lies with those in charge of the economy. Leaders within organisations must work to eliminate toxic working environments so labour can find free expression to deliver what managers expect of labour. 

However, every labour will be making a grave error if they are looking for someone to solve some of the specific challenges for labour, such as finding meaning at work and committing to excellence. 

As Martin Luther King said several decades ago, "All labour that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence". Committing to excellence in an environment removed from toxicity is a personal, rational economic choice. 


What other commitments should labour keep to make work work?
Be of good cheer!

The writer is a Leadership Development Facilitator, Executive Coach and Strategy Consultant, Founder of the CEO Accelerator Program ( and Chief Learning Strategist at TEMPLE Advisory ( 

The mission of The Leadership Project is to harvest highly effective leadership practices and share them in a manner that other leaders can easily incorporate into their leadership practice. If you have an idea or leadership practice to share, kindly write to [email protected]

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