Work as an Existential Issue: Employee Encagement, Total Work, and the Corporate Gaze

employee encagement

Employee engagement refers to the degree to which employees care about their work and the company they work for. If employees are engaged, we would say that they are passionate, motivated, and focused when carrying out tasks; whereas disengaged employees will be disinterested in the projects and the organisation they are a part of. There is no emotional investment. I would, however, like to add a new term to the business and HR lexicon – and that’s employee encagement.

When discussing whether employees are engaged or disengaged at work, there is a crucial phenomenon that is often absent. Here I refer to the extent to which employees feel trapped by their work or encaged by it. Employee encagement, as a satirical pun, is intended to encapsulate this phenomenon. According to a Gallup poll from 2016, 73% of UK workers are disengaged at work, while 19% are “actively disengaged”, meaning – quite simply – that they are miserable at work. Together, these findings mean that 92% of UK workers don’t like their jobs, yet they still spend a large chunk of their life doing them. Whatever the reason for staying in a soul-crushing job, doing so can create a feeling of encagement. Moreover, disinterest in – or dislike for – one’s work has real and sometimes serious mental health implications. For example, if we feel our work lacks meaning, we are more likely to suffer from depression.

Employee encagement is also linked to the psychological well-being of employees. If you feel trapped by your work, which is likely to be experienced more by actively disengaged employees than the merely disengaged, then this can foster feelings of anxiety, meaninglessness, and hopelessness. To feel encaged by one’s work is, undoubtedly, an aspect of many an existential crisis. In order to resolve the problem of employee encagement, the phenomenon needs to be better understood; and in this vein, I will tie this concept to the idea of ‘total work’, a term coined by the German philosopher Josef Pieper. If we give the subjective experience of employee encagement the attention it deserves, we can make efforts to reduce the collective anguish and discontent we find in modern society.

Employee Encagement, Total Work, and the Corporate Gaze

Elaborating on the concept of employee encagement, we can think of it as something constricting and as an affront to universal human interests. If you regularly dread going to work and feel that your job consumes your life and has a consistently negative effect on your thoughts and emotions, then this could be a sign of employee encagement. When you feel trapped by your work, you may struggle to imagine how you can get out and wonder whether you’ll be stuck in meaningless and stifling work forever.

In his book Leisure: The Basis of Culture (1948), Pieper defines total work as the phenomenon in which people are turned into workers, with no meaningful identity or life outside of work. Work becomes total when everything about life is defined in terms of work. Our reason for being here – and our motivation for doing anything – is viewed through the lens of work. Our purpose is to be productive and every other non-work activity, such as living healthily, should serve the function of improving our productivity and making us more effective workers. The philosopher Andrew Taggart argues that this vision of total work is not just a dystopian vision of the imagination; he says, “This world, it turns out, is not a work of science fiction; it is unmistakably close to our own.”

Indeed, as a culture, we are obsessed with productivity hacks. We are obsessed to the extent that many lifestyle habits and practices that are beneficial for one reason (e.g. improving our mental health) have become co-opted, utilised for optimising ourselves as better workers. This would include things like eating a nutritious diet, sleeping well, exercising, meditating, journaling, taking psychedelics, or floating in sensory deprivation tanks. All of these activities now hold the promise of boosting our productivity, so that many people now become interested in them as methods for working more efficiently.

Taggart believes that “we are on the verge of total work’s realisation”. For many people, work controls their lives – and when this occurs, it is a clear sign of employee encagement. Your whole sense of identity, self-worth, and purpose in life becomes wrapped up with your work identity, which includes your job title, your work-related success and failures, your career goals, and your service to your organisation. The feeling of encagement relates to the inability to either imagine an alternative or to feel despondently assured that any alternative, any form of work, will also involve such feelings of encagement. A high degree of employee encagement often follows when most of one’s time and energy is taken up by matters of work. To feel encaged by one’s work means that you are not free (either in terms of time or mental space) to consider the other aspects of human life that contribute to joy and flourishing, such as contemplation, artistic and creative endeavours, time spent with friends and family, and the myriad forms of play and leisure we like to engage in.

In this sense, work-life balance is strongly linked to employee encagement. If workers do not have the time, freedom, and flexibility to live a full life, meaning the ability to express their being fully and satisfy the panoply of their human needs and interests, then the result can be a feeling of entrapment, some nebulous imprisoning felt experience. When most of our waking life is spent on activities we deem without value and contrary to our sense of self and interests, we lose two crucial components of human happiness: meaning and authenticity (I use the term authenticity here within the framework of existentialism, referring to the degree to which our actions align with our beliefs and desires, despite external pressures to act differently).

Conversely, we could say low levels of employee encagement manifest when workers feel they are ‘working to live’ rather than ‘living to work’. If workers in a company don’t generally feel dread, resentment, apathy, fatigue, or burnt out in relation to their work but instead feel their work is non-constrictive or even liberating, then they might not be so troubled by subjective experiences of being entrapped by their work. Working to live means that your job provides the kind of salary and adequate time in order to more or less live your life as you see fit. A non-encaging organisation does not make you feel like your job is your identity, that your loyalties lie primarily with the company (and not with your loved ones), or that your tasks matter more than your mental health.

The encaging quality of work also manifests in the form of micromanagement (the mental health effects of which I have covered elsewhere). To be micromanaged is to have a manager closely monitoring and controlling you at work. Such a manager will constantly hover over you, obsess over minor details, provide you with unwavering instructions, and discuss every minute mistake you make. Even when the manager is not around, there is an uncomfortable sense of still being patrolled, with the micromanager sitting in your head. Since micromanagement is a universal leadership style (although diminishing in popularity), many people’s days at work are spent feeling rigidly limited, unfree, uncreative, and psychologically claustrophobic.

Applying a Foucauldian perspective, we can say that employee encagement involves a manager or senior colleague applying a ‘corporate gaze’ or ‘work gaze’ (similar to the ‘medical gaze’ Foucault described) that reduces the individual to a worker, narrowly defining him or her in a dehumanising way – and this fosters a toxic power dynamic between the employee and the employer.

How Can We Improve the Situation?

Many companies do make efforts to prioritise work-life balance for their employees. In addition, the number of people switching to freelancing and self-employment is continually rising. These are signs of cultural change. More and more people are starting to realise that when you feel consumed and controlled by your work, you become not just dissatisfied with work but unhappy with your life in general. Indeed, if the level of employee encagement is high enough, then the corners of one’s life not affected by work may be few and vanishing. And this actually spells bad news for employers, not just employees, as this kind of dissatisfaction can lead employees to leave their jobs and search for work that is more freeing and human-focused.

Organisations should pick up on these sorts of patterns of employee turnover. If companies don’t understand why their culture is causing employees to feel unhappy at work and willing to leave, then the culture will fail to change. It’s very much in the company’s interests to be cognizant of employee encagement, to discern whether employees feel their work allows them to live a full life or whether it’s acting as more of a constraining force in their lives.

High levels of employee encagement seem to revolve around issues of time, money, and stress. For instance, by not giving employees the time and money they reasonably need to live a fulfilling life, both now and in the future, employees may have the sense of being unable to ever truly relax or build the life they want, which is certainly a confining feeling. Meanwhile, experiencing high levels of work-related stress can have ripple effects on the rest of one’s life. It can affect your mental health and, in turn, your relationships; chronic stress as a result of work can also impact your sleep and ability to switch from ‘work mode’ to ‘life mode’. Also, overwork and financial anxiety resulting from work may further compound work-related stress, making you feel stuck in a seemingly intractable situation.

Organisations do have the power to make improvements to problems surrounding an employee’s time, money, and stress levels. However, it’s clear that company cultures do not (and will not) change overnight. This doesn’t mean that employees within regressive companies are, in fact, trapped in their roles. The spike we are seeing in rates of freelancing, remote work, and self-employment show that it is feasible for many individuals to pursue work that is not so encaging, that is more conducive to balance and contentment. This isn’t to say, of course, that freelancing or self-employment is a guaranteed way of escaping the feeling of encagement, as working for yourself can make you feel confined in other ways, such as confined to isolation or job and financial insecurity, as well as encaged in similar ways to the office worker, such as in one’s subjective sense of identity and purpose.

Perhaps only a small minority of workers today can confidently declare that they are completely free from encagement as a result of their work. But this doesn’t mean that employers and workers can’t still make efforts to significantly reduce such feelings, since it is possible to do so. Despite the prevalence of confining work cultures, some workers have a degree of freedom to make choices that better serve human flourishing (this ability, nonetheless, often comes down to privilege in terms of one’s socioeconomic background and other life circumstances). In truth, employee encagement is systemic and so the most concrete answer to the problem will be a systemic solution. Just as the late critical theorist Mark Fisher argued that mental distress is a political issue, linked specifically to neoliberal ideology and consequent policymaking, encagement too has political roots and political solutions. One possible remedy, some might imagine, would be a workable system of universal basic income (UBI), where everyone is entitled to a regular income that meets their basic needs of survival and comfort in modern society.

This, of course, raises the question of whether UBI is, in fact, workable (how will it be funded, and what are the benefits and risks involved?). But, iit is feasible, then people would be able to shake off the existential encagement that visits most workers. This existential encagement refers to the feeling that one’s existence is (partly) defined by the inescapable need to work – and to work very hard doing something meaningless or absurd, possibly for all of one’s life – in order to survive. Free from the persistent stress and dread that this situation creates, many more people will have the opportunity to seek out what is engaging, rather than encaging.

Leave a Reply