How employers can help workers separate self-worth from their careers

Simone Stolzoff's new book “The Good Enough Job” presents a problem pervading US work culture, but offers solutions, too.
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Simone Stolzoff

· 3 min read

White-collar professionals in the US often suffer from a malady: a tendency to derive personal meaning and fulfillment from their careers. This is, distilled simply, the premise of Simone Stolzoff’s new book: The Good Enough Job: Reclaiming Life From Work. In it, Stolzoff provides a wide-angle lens into the many causes of this phenomenon, colored by interviews with workers, and presents actionable steps that organizations can take to prevent employees from treading this path.

HR Brew spoke to Stolzoff about the pervasiveness of careerism in US society, why it became so entrenched, and some of the steps employers can take to loosen its grip on modern life.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you decide to write this book?

Two reasons: I’m a journalist and I’ve been on the work beat for a number of years. Part of it is just born out of my reporting and observing how essential work has become for so many Americans. I covered Silicon Valley tech companies, and there was this real ethos in the early aughts about being the perfect employer and trying to create decent jobs for people. The other reason was more personal. In 2018, I ended up leaving [full-time] journalism, and it was sort of a swerve in my career. It felt like a crossroads and these two potential paths, and very much felt like I was choosing, not between two jobs, but between two versions of me. So the central question of the book is, how did work become central to our identities?

Why is this culture so pervasive?

Historically, capitalism and the Protestant work ethic were the two strains that are entwined with and form our country’s DNA. The core mythology is the American dream: Anyone has the ability to work hard and make their way to the top. One of the reasons our relationship to work in the US is so fraught, is because the consequences of losing work are so dire—healthcare is paid via employment, your visa, and your ability to stay in the country is tied with employment. In the past 40 or so years, there’s also been a decline of other cultural institutions for Americans, things like organized religion or community or neighborhood groups that once provided a huge sense of identity, belonging, and purpose for people. And even though these institutions have been on the decline, the need for belonging, purpose, and community remain. And I think a lot of Americans have transposed those desires to where they spend the majority of their time, which is the office.

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Is there anything employers can do to challenge this notion?

I think a lot of the responsibility to develop our relationship to work falls on the shoulders of employers. Often we’re told that work-life balance often falls on an individual, it’s like, ‘Go practice self-care this weekend.’ Employers are actually in a better position to enact some of those structural boundaries that can help employees. I’m really inspired by companies that do things like mandatory minimum vacation requirements. Corporate culture really trickles down from the top. You can have all of the most progressive policies in the world. But if your boss or the CEO of the company is answering Slack messages at 11pm, what’s going to keep rank-and-file employees from wanting to do the same? Leaders have to model the culture that they hope to create in their companies.

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