Opinion: Healthier work culture will not quench our fire

Geraldine Peacock, a charity commissioner and a civil service commissioner, but writes in a personal capacity

The voluntary sector was founded on, and continues to run on, passion and commitment. Whether it is parents joining together to address common difficulties in their children's lives, addressing injustice or preventing future harm, the energy and determination required to fill the vacuum is huge and, in many cases, all-consuming.

So when those passion-fuelled groups expand and evolve - becoming established organisations, authorities, and employers - cultures change. The founder of a voluntary organisation is likely to retain the fire in their belly forever. An employee is likely to have a different kind of commitment, but that commitment is usually deep too. Belief in a cause drives people to commit time and energy far beyond that usually expected in traditional nine-to-five positions. It has always been part of our culture.

All of which means that the voluntary sector's long-hours culture largely predates the "overwork culture" identified within the broader workforce in Madeleine Bunting's book, Willing slaves: why we need an alternative to overwork culture.

In her book, she identifies "... a new form of elitism in the labour market: work as vocation and work as pleasure". The combining of vocation and pleasure has long been a factor in the development of the voluntary sector and, while the commitment it demands is admirable, the increased professionalisation of our sector brings a responsibility to look more closely at how we achieve what we achieve.

As a society, we are all used to blaming employers for our overwork, but the reality, as Bunting shows, is that many of us are responsible for our own exhaustion. The not-for-profit sector, while perhaps being the source of this culture, is also leading the way in tackling it. Shirley Conran's Work-Life Balance Trust, the Work Foundation, the Work-Life Centre, Unison and even the DTI are moving towards a more responsible, more effective and, ultimately, more caring approach to work.

But we must not confuse this determination to reset the balance with a dilution of commitment. As John Ruskin said: "In order that people may be happy in their work, these three things are needed: They must be fit for it. They must not do too much of it. And they must have a sense of success in it."

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