What is work? A definition

You might think the author of a blog titled “Engaging Work” would have worked out a good definition for “Work”.  It isn’t for lack of trying – I’ve certainly been applying lots of thought and  talking to a wide range of people for a long time!

Conventional wisdom seem to define work as “what I am paid to do”.  But I find that definition increasingly unsatisfactory (and likely to be even less helpful going forward).

The most obvious issue is that it excludes anything that isn’t paid.  It doesn’t make sense that a parent caring for a child isn’t working, while a child-carer is working.  I don’t like money being the criteria, not least because increasing numbers of people put in effort that may or may not lead to financial reward.  How many copies of a book have to be sold for the author to be considered to have worked on it?  It seems a completely arbitrary factor.

Then there is a notion that effort has to be directly linked to the reward.  If work sends me on a training course to improve my skills, is that still work?  If I spend my weekend gaining those same skills, is that just as much work?  Does the location of the course, or whether it is on during ‘work hours’ determine if it is work?  Is it work if you study at university, before you have a job to use those skills?

A lot of people consider lack of autonomy makes something work – if your boss tells you to do something, it is work, while if you choose to do it, then it is somehow less work.  Given how much we know about how much more productive and satisfied we are when we work with autonomy, it seems crazy that we would be sending a message that valid work requires us to give up autonomy.  It seems a recipe to make work as unpleasant as possible.

I am therefore working on a broader definition of work, and keen to get feedback.  I’m currently thinking along the lines of:

Work is the spending of time and energy in return for some expected gain

The first component of this definition is the spending of time and energy.  The traditional view of work is that the only personal resource that counts is time, but I think we need to be broader – your engagement, your energy, and your creativity are perhaps even more productive in today’s economy than your time.

The second component is the requirement for expected gain.  Unlike the conventional view, in my definition it doesn’t have to be monetary, and it doesn’t have to be your gain.  And it doesn’t have to eventuate, so long as it was expected at the time of deciding to do the work.  And it doesn’t have to be a net gain, just some gain that I value.

So, this broadening of the definition of work now definitely includes a parent caring for a child – he or she is spending time and energy to improve the child’s welfare.  It includes study (so long as you see some value in what you get out of it).  It includes the writing of these blog.  And it includes community work.

Broadening the definition of work doesn’t mean that all work is equally valuable, and the challenge of working out how to spend your time and energy is tougher than a financial investment decision.   In addition to the gains being uncertain, they are difficult to measure, and may affect multiple people differently.  I will most likely value gains that accrue to me more highly than those accruing to others, but that isn’t to say that I only think about myself.

There is room for refining this definition.  Are there other personal resources that should be included with time and energy?  Should we exclude certain gains?  For example, if I spent on something just to make me happy, is that work?  Do sporting activities count as work?  It is possible that I could even count sleep as work by my definition.  Have I suddenly just included all our activities in life as work?

But I’d rather risk being overly broad in how we define work, helping us make sensible decisions about the work we do,  than constrain ourselves to work that satisfies a restricted (and outdated) set of notions and reduces our chance of achieving our potential.

2 thoughts on “What is work? A definition

    1. Guy Lipman

      Thanks for these links – I’ll check them out.

      Yes, I agree with the idea that it is human nature to work (at least when we take this broader definition of work). That’s why I can’t accept the argument that a safety net stops people working.


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