Good Work

Good work offers a holistic mix of benefits that add to a person’s social, emotional, financial, intellectual and inner well-being.

However, not all work is equal, and sometimes the drawbacks of work can outweigh its benefits. In this article you can read about the differences between good work and bad work.

Bad work

The Gallup State of the Global Workplace: 2023 Report found that a staggering 77% of all workers were not engaged with their jobs. There are a variety of reasons for this. The top reason is that a lot of workers can’t stand their managers. Other reasons workers aren’t engaged with their jobs include bad conditions, boredom, meaningless work, competitiveness, annoying colleagues, bureaucracy, commuting, overwork, and unethical work.

These are the categories and results that Gallup polled:

  • Thriving at work (23%): These employees are engaged at work. They find their jobs meaningful, they feel connected to their team and proud of their work.
  • Quiet quitting (59%): These employees are not engaged, they are filling a seat and watching the clock. They are disconnected from their employer/manager and their workplace generally.
  • Loud quitting (18%): These employees are actively disengaged with work. They take actions that oppose their employers and harm the organisation.

Interestingly, a similar Gallup Poll in 2019 found workers in smaller businesses (with 25 staff or less) were more engaged with their jobs than workers in large businesses. There would be a variety of reasons for this too, but altogether it points to the pathology of super-sized corporate-industrial operations. Read more about the ideal business here »

Bullshit work

In his book Bullshit Jobs the anthropologist David Graeber contends that up to half of all jobs are pointless. To back up Graeber’s guesstimate, a YouGov poll in 2019 found that 37% of British workers think their jobs are meaningless.

Graeber notes that people are not inherently lazy; and people don’t work just to pay the bills. He says people also work because they want to contribute something meaningful to society. Therefore, the consequence of spending our days on meaningless work causes psychological damage, especially when coupled with a pervasive work-ethic that conflates work with self-worth.

“If one wanted to crush and destroy a man entirely, to mete out to him the most terrible punishment, all one would have to do would be to make him do work that was completely and utterly devoid of usefulness and meaning.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Since bullshit jobs make no economic sense, Graeber argues their function must be political. In other words, a population kept busy with made-up work is less likely to revolt.

A job is a job. Or is it?

Many people consider that a job is a job, and you have to take what you can get.

First of all, a job isn’t just a job. As the designer, inventor and hero of sustainability, Buckminster Fuller, once wrote: “[t]he minute you do what you really want to do, it’s really a different kind of life”.

Secondly, you don’t necessarily have to take any job you can get – not for long anyway. There is the wonderful advice that a young Hunter S. Thompson gave to an even younger friend: “Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life”. Read the full letter about finding the right purpose here »

Yes, we all have to make a living, and working to make a living contributes to well-being, but it is still only part of making a life.

Having a holistic view of work, means you don’t just work for the money or for the weekends.

The best work never was and never will be done for money.” – John Ruskin

What is good work?

In 1977, E.F. Schumacher published his book Good Work. In the book he argues that with the advent of industrialisation and machine-based production a lot of work lacks real meaning for workers. In his book, Schumacher outlined three purposes of work that make it good:

  1. To produce useful products and services
  2. To develop and hone our skills
  3. To collaborate with others which aids our social well-being, including the moderation of our egocentrism.

I would add one more to this list:

  1. good work should benefit your soul.

Work for the soul

Work can be soul-destroying. It is great that businesses have health and safety regulations for all sorts of physical and social risks, but where are the health and safety regulations for the soul.

One significant problem is that people are shoe-horned into jobs, and also work is often alienating because people don’t have a direct connection with what they produce. Instead of making the person fit the needs of the work, it is much better for a worker’s soul to fit the work to the needs of the person.

We were not sent into this world to do anything into which we cannot put our hearts. – John Ruskin

Meaningful work is good work

If you work to improve and fulfil yourself, these are intrinsic benefits. If you work to make money, that is an extrinsic benefit. Whilst all work has some combination of the two, getting the right balance is important for well-being.

“Their knowledge-related work, these people say, lacks a sense of consequence; they have lost the feeling that their fragmented or specialised or abstract contribution leads sufficiently directly to a result that is real, that has positive value in meeting the needs and wants of the people, and that is relatively free of hidden or later-manifesting consequences.” – Peter N. Gillingham

One of the reasons that people in small businesses are more engaged in their jobs is because they can see the consequences of their work, and the difference their work makes. In giant-scale businesses work is often abstract and seemingly inconsequential, therefore meaningless.


In the corporate-industrial paradigm work is lost in the a mire of bureaucracy, technocracy, managerialism, and over-specialisation.

In contrast, Good work is work that:

  • is beneficial, not just to the employer, but especially to the worker as well as the consumers of the goods and services produced
  • is measured by the number of people who make their livelihood in ways they find rewarding
  • helps your personal development
  • work that you can put your heart and soul into
  • when the work conforms to the individual, as opposed to making the individual conform to the work
  • work that provides useful, worthwhile and sustainable goods and services to others
  • concrete and whole, rather than abstract and piecemeal
  • holistic, meaning it offers a wide range of benefits

“I do think a man has missed a very deep feeling of satisfaction if he has never created or at least completed something with his own two hands. We have grown accustomed to work on pieces of things instead of wholes…” – Dick Proenneke

Further reading

Bread labour

Craft production

The benefits of chores