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Why We Work

Work is not who we are. But in its most ideal setting, work can be an opportunity to express who we are. Ultimately, this sense of self becomes the source of our actions, our words, and our behaviors. First and foremost, work allows us to provide the essentials of health, food, and shelter for ourselves and our families. However, after these needs are met, work provides an opportunity to experience and explore who we are and who we can become. It allows us the chance to experience the greatest part of ourselves, our human spirit, by participating in something greater than ourselves.

When we consider our behaviors at work, we must first look at how and why our actions arise. Workers can be ordered to behave in certain ways, but those behaviors may be difficult to sustain over time. However, if our ideal behaviors arise naturally from within each of us, from our core values, they become organic and part of our work experience.

We are driven far more by our internal motivations than we are by external motivations. External provocations, whether positive or negative, can only go so far. Our internal motivations — including our sense of self, family, and dignity — are what drive us and carry us through our challenges and successes. It is not a matter of saying the right words in order to get people to do what you want them to do. Instead, it is a matter of honoring people and their core values, so they will naturally do their best.

How we experience ourselves and behave at work is unique for each person. We can express our core values of dignity, respect, and self-excellence. We can contribute our skills, knowledge, and creativity. We can be heard. And we can care for others by building relationships at work. If a workplace divides us from ourselves or from each other, we have less of ourselves to bring to our work. However, when a workplace encourages each of us to bring our entire selves, to connect with others through our relationships, we have more of ourselves to contribute to our work, our performance, and our safety.

The difference between positive and negative work environments is whether they support or deplete the human spirit. We know what does and does not work. The Whitehall II Study and other research have demonstrated how severe and debilitating an unsupportive environment can be. At the same time, we witness work environments that support the entire person with profound effects, where workers are encouraged to experiment with their skills, to make mistakes, to learn and grow, and to succeed.

At its best, work can encourage us to become aware of ourselves, our whole selves, because we are more than the sum of our parts. Work is an opportunity to experience how we find meaning by relating to others and connecting to something larger than ourselves. When we are supported, we do not need to hide who we are when we come to work, because through our work, we have the opportunity to know and understand who we are.