There is a difference between “at work” and “in work”.

Whether you call it employee experience or otherwise, initiatives to improve the lives of employees are numerous and the health crisis has even reinforced the importance of the subject. However, there is nothing new about them and they are unlikely to suddenly work when they have systematically failed since time immemorial. The reason lies in a subtle vocabulary trait: we confuse what happens “at work” and “while working”.

Making life at work better

2016 is both so close and so far away. In his presentation of the major HR and HRIS trends at the HRTech conference, Josh Bersin explained the evolution of HRIS through the ages and showed that we were entering a new phase that consisted of “making work life better“.

But this is nothing new. For years now, we have been talking about well-being at work, for example, with the result that improvements are real but insufficient, otherwise we wouldn’t still be talking about this subject in 2021. Then we talk about happiness at work, which I would call a joke if this fanciful approach did not hide problems that are very serious.

Bersin’s prism is naturally HR but his vision was in my opinion broader: when he talks about “Culture & Team Productivity” for example, one can suspect that he sees further than HR and is interested in business operations. The same is true when he talks about “Next-Gen Feedback Performance”. Moreover, the fact that he makes “Work-Life Balance/Welness” a sub-category shows that the well-being dimension exists but is not everything.

The tradition of the Spa next to the torture room

When I started to focus on topics related to what has come to be known as the employee experience and did a quick survey of practices in this area, I quickly realized what I saw as a lack of ambition that could only result in a lack of impact.

Almost nothing concerned work situations. There were of course “mixed” or peripheral things (HR subjects, managerial postures), totally external subjects (various benefits, moments and places of socialization, initiatives aiming at improving well-being) but which did not address the work itself: when the employee is “active”, in a production situation.

When I say peripheral or external, it does not mean without impact! A better work/life balance, learning to relax and breathe, doing sports, a manager who gives you attention and recognition necessarily has an impact on work and, in part, on working conditions. But it doesn’t change the work as an activity, it doesn’t take place while you are working. These are things that take place during a time when the employee is not working (in the sense that he is not in a productive situation) and that we hope will have an impact on the times when he is working.

I have always called this “putting a spa next to the torture room”. The work itself is complicated, painful for an infinity of reasons but mainly because of the way it is organized and equipped and we can’t change anything, but when people don’t work we can “compensate”.

I am deeply convinced of the benefits of sports, meditation, yoga or whatever (everyone can add to the list what works for him or her), of a superb rest room, a table soccer or a playstation, but this does not solve the problems of organizational complication, of operational management (when the manager is leading the operations, not when he or she is chatting quietly in an office to comfort an employee), of tools that don’t work or are poorly integrated, of information that is not available, etc.

Employees do not suffer from the lack of hugs but from the complication of work

The simple fact that after one of these “regenerative” moments the salaries take a resigned tone to say “well, we still have to go back [to work]” shows the magnitude of the problem. We gave them the magic pill that makes them forget the pain but we did not treat the causes of the pain.

When you have 81% of employees trusting robots more than humans to address their mental health issues at work there are questions to be asked, right?

I will confess that I myself was not comfortable with this figure when I saw it until I went a little deeper into the details of the study from which it came, which did not fail to back my convictions.

No, employees don’t want to talk to robots to confide their distress. They just think that robots will solve their mental health problems not by listening or cuddling but by simplifying their work, providing answers and taking care of the laborious tasks.

I was quoting this article I saw on the BBC website that talked about corporate programs addressing mental health and wellness issues and quoted people saying:

“Do I want classes on meditation? Yes. But do they move the needle on the stuff that matters, that will actually change the way an employee feels? No.”


We have mental-health days, but everything’s reactive, not proactive. When you offer a mental-health day because you can see someone’s burnt out, but you don’t lighten the workload, it makes the stress worse“.

Here we are only talking about workload, but I think we need to go further. I don’t think that the subject is so much the number of hours worked, even if it is important, but what we do during these hours. And here I come back to the subject of complication, unnecessarily laborious and useless tasks, unsuitable tools etc.

What we are being told is nothing more than “do things on the side of work, that’s fine, but change the work”. If 25% of the employees want to leave their job it is not because of the absence of yoga classes but because of complicated processes that prevent them from doing their job well.

“At Work” Vs. “In work”.

And here I come back to the original point of this article.

Whether we’re talking about well-being at work, happiness at work, employee experience or anything else that goes along these lines, companies are happily confusing “at work” with “in work”, whether intentionally or not. And that changes everything.

Being at work means being in the workplace and/or during working hours. Being “in work” means being in a productive situation.

Some examples: (the elements of each line do not oppose each other, they should be read vertically rather than horizontally.

At workIn Work
On breakIn a meeting
Talking about his problems with his managerInteracting with your manager in the heat of the moment
Attending a seminar, a corporate eventChasing information that you don’t know where it is
Take advantage of a sports, meditation or yoga class organized by the companyWaiting for a decision that does not come before acting
Implementing the right to disconnectReceiving emails and messages despite the right to disconnect
Take advantage of the works council’s initiativesCollect and copy/paste data into tools that don’t talk to each other
Spending quality time with colleagues and managers outside of workHave systematically tense work situations with your manager and colleagues
Being told about the company’s positive valuesSeeing that the company’s values do not apply on the field.
Seeing one’s importance and responsibilities recalled and valuedConsume energy on menial tasks without added value
Take advantage of accompaniment and support programs.Feeling like you’re constantly fighting against the organization to get things done, to do your job
Enjoying a breakEnjoying to be getting things done

In most organizations there is a kind of glass ceiling between what is peripheral to work and what happens in the flow of work so that when we talk about making life better at work we focus on what happens at work and not in work.

The reason for this is obvious: painting the facade is less complicated than touching the load-bearing walls and there is no risk of harming or upsetting too many people.

The employee is not responsible for his problems

But this is a very short term vision that does not contribute to the performance of the organization, on the contrary, it generates disengagement, frustration and discredits the initiatives that are supposed to help employees. On the contrary, as I explained in my commentary on the 4th Employee Experience Barometer, the employee experience can and should be a performance factor, provided that it also takes care of what happens in work.

Moreover, an “at work” approach is based on an individual vision of the issues related to comfort, happiness, well-being or performance. Indeed, if everyone is potentially concerned, it is each person who finds an individual satisfaction and, moreover, the fact of satisfying a person can be done independently of what is done for another person.

On the other hand, an “in work” approach is collective and it is perhaps this that poses a problem for those who do not dare to venture into it. When we change the content and organization of work, we change the modalities, rules, processes and tools that sometimes affect a large number of people.

Behind the choice between the two approaches lies a question: who is responsible for suffering, malaise, burnout and, in general, for all the negative impacts of work on the individual? There is still a strong tendency to make the individual responsible for his problems, considering that if he reaches his limits or if his limits are too low, it is his fault. The truth is quite different: a burnout is a company and organizational problem that materializes in the employee, not the other way around. It is the company that needs to be healed, that is the problem.

How people feel vs. what people do

Once again there is a mental border between what touches the well being (or whatever we call it) and what touches the work, what touches the human and what touches the operational. As if one was invariant and that one could address it by touching the second.

If we push the reasoning to the end, it means that how we feel at work is totally decoupled from what we do there. That the content and organization of work have no impact on the health of individuals. Or that we assume that work will be dysfunctional by nature and that all that remains is to buy band-aids to heal the wounds it generates.

But it doesn’t work.

Image : Chrismas in the office de 4 PM production via Shutterstock

Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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