originally posted at The Gospel Coalition by Bethany Jenkins
How to Humanize the Workplace
Moritz Erhardt, a healthy and athletic 21-year-old intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in London, collapsed and died in his shower on August 15. Described as the “superstar” of the internship program, he regularly left the office at 5 a.m. only to go to his apartment to take a shower and change his clothes before returning to work. In the days leading up to his death, Erhardt pulled eight all-nighters in a two-week period. The cause of death is believed to be exhaustion-induced epileptic seizure.
Investment banks are infamous for asking their employees to keep grueling hours, but their industry is hardly unique. Law firms are still largely based on billable hours, which means that employees who work long hours are more profitable than those who don’t. Contractors working on offshore oil and gas rigs usually pull two-week shifts at 84 hours per week, and teachers work more than 50 hours per week on average.
Overworking to the point of exhaustion is dehumanizing. It’s treating employees as cogs in a machine, not as fully human people who need rest and leisure. Yet overworking is not the only way our work environments can be dehumanized. How does your company, for example, promote continuing education? Does it offer proper job training for your role? Are all people treated with dignity? Is innovation encouraged at all levels?
The brokenness of the workplace is compounded when combined with the brokenness of the community and also the individual. In the case of the young investment banker, his community did not speak truth to power. One of his co-workers confessed, “I see many people wandering around, blurry-eyed and drinking caffeine to get through, but people don’t complain because the potential rewards are so great.” At an individual level, Erhardt himself talked about his own struggle with pursuing success. On his blog, he wrote, “Sometimes I had a tendency to be overly ambitious. . . . Over the last year, I have learned that complacency implies stagnancy.”
Becoming Fully Human
When brokenness exists at all three levels in the workplace—the industry, the community, and the individual—where can we find hope?
“In the fall of man, we become dehumanized,” says David H. Kim, executive director of the Center for Faith and Work (CFW) and the pastor of faith and work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. “But the gospel makes us fully human.” He points to Jonathan Edwards, who said, “Before, as God created [man], he was exalted, and noble, and generous; but now he is debased, and ignoble, and selfish. Immediately upon the fall, the mind of man shrank from its primitive greatness and expandedness, to an exceeding smallness and contractedness.”
Sin, Kim says, is why “we never seem to be able to achieve that greatness we feel so deeply in our own hearts.”
Yet God did not leave humanity in its shriveled state. Edwards continued, “But God, in mercy to miserable man entered on the work of redemption and, by the glorious gospel of his Son, began the work of bringing the soul of man out of its confinement and contractedness, and back again to those noble and divine principles by which it was animated and governed at first. And it is through the cross of Christ that he is doing this; for our union with Christ gives us participation in his nature.”
Toward a Humanized Workplace
The gospel may make us fully human at the individual level, but what about at the community and industry levels? Kim suggests four particular areas are fundamental to a humanized workplace—fairness, equity, opportunity, and creativity/innovation. “This is not about meeting the minimum standards, but about creating human flourishing for people to live out their calling as divine image-bearers in the world.”
At the industry level, an entire economy may image God as creator by promoting a culture of innovation. Kim, who is Korean American, cites the transformation of the South Korean economy. Once considered an “imitative” culture, South Korea’s economy has flourished through innovation. The Boston Consulting Group now places South Korea at number one on its “International Innovation Index,” which looks at both the business outcomes of innovation (e.g., patents, R&D results, shareholder returns) and the government’s ability to encourage and support innovation through public policy (e.g., fiscal policy, education policy, innovation environment).
At the community level, an institution might image God’s self-disclosure by embracing transparent management practices and open communication. “The character of God is self-disclosure,” Kim explains. “It’s gracious of God to reveal himself to us. When we don’t know certain things, he’s not making a power play; he’s extending love to us because, for whatever reason, that information would harm us.” Google is an institution that celebrates transparent management in their “Eight Habits of Highly Effective Google Managers,” which includes having “a clear vision and strategy for the team” and helping “your employees with career development.” Incidentally, Google consistently ranks number one on Forbes‘sannual best places to work list.
At the individual level, discerning the brokenness of an industry or an institution is important for discerning a vocational call. “A lot of people have problems with their sense of calling,” Kim says, “not because they’re in the wrong industry, but because they’re in a dehumanized workplace. They may have loved law school, for example, but they hate the law firm or the legal industry. In such cases, it’s hard to know whether you’re in the right vocation.”
What happens when the workplace at all these levels is more humanized? Productivity and efficiency increases as well as the ability to live out our callings as image-bearers of God. All of us—whether directors, managers, or assistants—have the opportunity to re-humanize our workplaces. In Creation Regained, Albert Wolters writes, “The healing, restoring work of Christ marks the invasion of the kingdom into the fallen creation.” And as Edwards said, “Our union with Christ gives us participation in his nature.” How can we participate in his nature and see the restoring work of Christ invade our broken workplaces?
- More Than a Dozen Twitter Accounts That Encourage You in Your Work (thehighcalling.org)