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How “forced fun” at the office can hurt our ability to disconnect

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Econ Extra Credit, in its latest iteration, focuses on one documentary a month with Marketplace themes. But for July, we decided to mix things up. This month, we’re studying the Emmy-nominated streaming series “Severance.”

Why it’s so hard for “Severance” characters (and us) to find meaning in work 

There are typically solid reasons for choosing one job over another, ranging from lofty aspirations of “saving the world” to the more concrete needs of paying the bills or supporting a family. But for the characters of the Apple TV+ series “Severance,” finding purpose from inside themselves is almost impossible as they know nothing about who they are outside the workplace.

The four workers who make up the Macro Data Refinement department at Lumon Industries — Mark, Helly, Dylan and Irving — stare at computer screens all day, searching for patterns of numbers that must be sorted by intuition alone. What the numbers represent, the workers do not know. And without that knowledge, it is difficult for the characters to find the motivation to meet their quotas or follow company policies.

Like the characters in “Severance,” it’s easier to create meaning in some jobs than others. But no matter the job, every individual has three fundamental psychological needs, according to the self-determination theory of motivation:  

“The ‘innies’ don’t have any of that,” said Ned Johnson, founder of PrepMatters and co-author of “The Self-Driven Child.”

In his work as a tutor and coach, Johnson tries to help teens figure out not just how to do well in school or get into a specific college, but how to thrive and find meaning in life.

“A low sense of control is one of the worst things you can experience,” Johnson said.

“The work is important and mysterious,” Mark tells Helly in one episode. In the real world, Johnson says that children are often taught about work and careers in the same way.

“So much of what children are told to do [is justified] because they are told it is ‘important.’ But they have no understanding of why,” said Johnson. “They are told, ‘Believe that it is important because we tell you it is important.'”

It’s why many children grow into adults without ever figuring out what “meaningful work” looks like, Johnson said. And it’s one reason why getting into a good college, getting the “right” job or making a lot of money is not a prescription for happiness.

The pandemic has stripped many individuals of their sense of control over their lives. Even when the pandemic ends or subsides, the answer to the question, “What is the purpose of my work?” has irrevocably changed for many, or perhaps it is that some people are just asking themselves that question for the very first time.

Company perks: benefits or bribery?

One way that companies have sought to artificially create purpose or meaning is by gamifying the workplace. In “Severance” that comes in the form of rewards based on performance. Complete a certain number of tasks, get a finger trap. Get to the next level, receive an original caricature portrait akin to what you may purchase as a souvenir on an oceanside boardwalk. Achieve the highest performance on the team, get a waffle party (this link includes spoiler alerts for those who haven’t watched).

In the real world, it might be recognition as employee of the month, or cupcakes on someone’s birthday. At Marketplace, our latest company swag came in the form of Marketplace-branded beach towels. But what is the intent behind these gifts? In the most generous of interpretations, they are an employer’s acknowledgement and gratitude of the work done. In the harshest of light, they are attempts to cheaply appease employees who are spending a lot of time at work and convince them it’s worth it.

In a recent op-ed, Gawker founding editor Elizabeth Spiers described these types of toys and rewards as “light corporate bribery.”

“Putting in long hours at the office is often conflated with a strong work ethic and more productivity, though it may not be indicative of either,” Spiers wrote for The New York Times. “To make employees feel this approach is reasonable, many employers blur the line between work and the rest of life, while offering little diversions here and there to approximate fun.”

“In the real world, the pandemic has deprogrammed employees of some of this indoctrination. They are starting to realize that toys are no longer an acceptable substitute for meaningful work, fair pay and adequate benefits.”

Give people the option to disconnect from work 

It goes beyond trinkets. Events like happy hours, on-site fitness classes — in the case of “Severance,” an absurd and creepy dance party — encourage employees to socialize in the office and stay at work longer.

“Work has come to dominate our lives so much, certainly before the pandemic and during it,” Adam Waytz, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, said on “Marketplace Morning Report.” “Once you start meshing work life and social life together, it makes me feel like, ‘What is left of our social life?'”

It’s not that workers shouldn’t have fun at the office, but companies, Waytz suggests, would do well to encourage employees to take a break from work, rather than adding more company perks.

“I’ve been to some of these Silicon Valley companies with massage therapists on hand, wood shops, etc. My problem with them is at the end of the day, you’re still keeping people at work,” Waytz said.

“I think that does something to sap their autonomy. So even if the intentions are good … [employees should have] the option to just go home. Or as the founder of Patagonia says, ‘Let my people go surfing.‘ I think that’s the right attitude.”

Have you watched “Severance” yet? Tell us what you think about the show or share with us your stories about how you find meaning and purpose in your work. We’re at extracredit@marketplace.org

ICYMI: Check out more of our stories related to “Severance” 

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