“Work is wirtue”

When we were in Greece last month we passed this house every day on our way into the local town. But it was only on about the second occasion that I did a double-take when I saw the sign on the gate.

I know nothing about the owners of the house to throw any light on their motives for putting this sign up. Perhaps it’s the name of their house, although it’s not very pithy for a house name. It’s a bit different from “Beware of the dog”, “No hawkers or circulars” (not sure I’ve ever seen a hawker) or “No junk mail’.

More likely it reflects a personal philosophy and one which the owner feels strong enough about to put it up in three languages. The slight mangling of the English version makes me think that the owner is German. The third version in German feels uncomfortably close to “Arbeit macht frei”.

I haven’t been able to track this saying down. The sentiment sounds like an encapsulation of the Protestant work ethic and could come from Germany or indeed from America.

But I’m left wondering why someone would want to put this up outside their own house. Is it advertising the “virtuous work” that the owner has done which has allowed him/her to be able to afford such a large house in a beautiful location? Is it a rebuke to other people (ie the Greeks who have been stigmatised by sections of the German media as work-shy spongers on the rest of Europe; possibly also the Brits – why else include an English version?) for not sharing the belief in the value of hard work? Or is it just a favourite saying that the owner wants to share with the rest of the world?

Greece has some of the longest working hours in Europe and Britain isn’t far behind. I read a report in the Guardian recently about expat Brits working in the financial services industry in Frankfurt. One characterised the difference in cultural attitudes between the two countries along these lines. In Britain, people are frightened to be seen to be leaving the office first. They put in ‘face-time’, build ‘profile’ with their managers, practise ‘presenteeism’, being seen to be there putting in the hours.

In Germany on the other hand, the attitude is more likely to be ‘We noticed that you worked 50 hours last week. Is there a problem? Can’t you cope?’ That sounds much saner and healthier to me than the madness of office life in this country which I can vouch for from my own experience.

When the Working Time Directive came into force in the UK some years ago, a friend of mine was called into his boss’s office after making several returns showing the reality of the length of his working week. He was very experienced, but he was regularly putting in over 60 hours a week just to keep on top of the job. His boss’s reaction was to offer either to give him some coaching or send him on a remedial training course, both of which meant that he would end up with a poor end of year performance management assessment. He decided on a third option, to take back his WTD returns to review – in effect to doctor them to hide an inconvenient (to the employer) truth.

‘Wirtue’ in this instance has nothing to do with it. I am reminded of the story told by the abbot of a Buddhist monastery. God and the devil were taking a walk together and God suddenly said to the devil: “I’ve got a great idea!” “OK”, said the devil, ‘let me organise it.”

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