Conspicuous work: do we compound the workload issue ourselves?

Scene: Due to him locking his keys inside it, George’s car has been sat in the parking lot at his workplace for a number of days now. He has been working his regular hours, but commuting via other means. He has just returned from a meeting with his boss Mr, Wilhelm, who, in turn, reports to the owner George Steinbrenner. He has come to Jerry’s apartment with good news about a possible promotion…
George: Assistant to the general manager! Do you know what that means? He could be asking my advice on trades. Trades, Jerry! I’m a heart beat away!
Jerry: That’s a hell of an organisation they are running up there. I can’t understand why they haven’t won a pennant in 15 years.
George: And it is all because of that car. See, Steinbrenner is like the first guy in at the crack of dawn. He sees my car, he figures I’m the first guy in. Then the last person to leave is Wilhelm. He sees my car, he figures I’m burning the midnight oil! Between the two of them, they think I’m working an 18-hour day!
Jerry: Locking your keys in the car is the best career move you ever made.
Seinfeld – ‘The Caddy’

Over 100 years ago, at the turn of the 20th century, sociologist and economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term ‘conspicuous consumption’ to describe the way that the upper classes purchased luxury goods as a means of publicly displaying their wealth. In his book, Theory of the Leisure Class, he criticised such showing off: not only did he think it wasted resources, but he also noted that the lower classes then sought to emulate the upper classes with similar unnecessary conspicuous consumption.

It’s a plausible theory: that to confer status, people might act a certain way only to be seen doing so. As such, it has some common ground with the modern phenomenon of virtue signalling.

Seeing quite a few people posting pictures of displays on Twitter during this first week of the holidays, I wondered (out loud, on Twitter) if ‘conspicuous work’ had ever been forwarded as a concept.

A quick search showed a study from the Netherlands from this year which took that very term as it’s title. ‘Conspicuous Work’ looked at male workers over a period of 17 years and drew the following conclusions:

  • The workers imitated their peers working hours – the longer their peers worked, the longer they did
  • The workers derived status from matching their peers working hours
  • This ‘peer working time’ negatively affected their happiness

They further summarised that “These findings are consistent with a ‘conspicuous work’ model, in which individuals derive status from working time.”

It seems that conspicuous work really is a viable notion. Jonathan Simons (of Policy Exchange) shared this anecdote:

I wonder if posting pictures of displays we’ve just made or of the marking we’re doing during the holidays fits with the conspicuous work model? Is a picture of a display actually a teacher’s version of the jacket on the back of the chair, or the car left late in the car park? Well, the honest answer is that I’m not sure that it is as conscious as those examples.

But whether there is intention in this conspicuous work or not, the important issue is whether or not this creates a culture in which peers see this conspicuous work and then imitate it. Do we, like the Dutch workers, derive status – consciously or not – from matching (or even superseding) our peers working hours? Or is it that we see others working and we feel we need to match it in order to maintain parity?

Of course, I’m not standing in judgement over people sharing pictures of displays in the holidays. Posting photos on social media is a very useful way to share ideas. And we are so busy that this downtime is often the only time we get to festoon our shabby staple-flecked walls with colourful new compositions. I’m certain that I too have shared work – although obviously not as beautiful – during the holidays. Heck, even this blog post is about work, so I’m hardly setting an example here.

But I wonder if what we are doing here is creating a normative message about being a teacher? By tweeting pictures of work we are completing during the holidays, we are saying this is okay; this is what we do; this is acceptable behaviour; moreover, this is… expected behaviour? I’ve written before about how the messages we send out create behavioural norms and how this can be either damaging or useful when talking to pupils. Are we creating a message about how working in your holidays is normative behaviour for teachers? And if so, are we compounding the workload issue ourselves?

I’d be interested in responses to this. Social media is brilliant for sharing ideas and, as we spend our working hours actually teaching, most of the sharing has to happen outside of those hours. So I find it hard to argue against such sharing. I wonder if there is an answer to this or is it simply a paradox we have to put up with?

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13 thoughts on “Conspicuous work: do we compound the workload issue ourselves?”

  1. It’s a massive issue.
    In fact, often the very act of creating elaborate displays is exactly one of those issues and it leads to the “keeping up with Mrs Jones” issue. It quickly becomes expected that everyone will invest hours in such things, regardless of their merits.
    I rather suspect that it’s also how we ended up with the current marking nightmares. Some keen individual did it, and then let someone else see that they were doing it.

    The whole syndrome can be compounded by the statement: it’s for the children.

    1. Lol – exactly!! I went to one school which wanted elaborate displays but fair play to the head he employed two TAs precisely based on their ability to do so!! Therefore the staff gave them what they wanted or an idea of it and they created it.

      I create a cave for a reading area which took ages. The children loved it but the time it took meant that we didn’t get to use it for the reasons I had created it in the first place. If I had had help it would have come together. But of course the TAs are teaching interventions so can’t be asked to take on projects (even though I think it would be a better use of their time in some circumstances.).

  2. Some ex-colleagues of mine were expected to meet up and plan during their Easter holidays as opposed to being given joint PPA time – they argued the toss and won in the end. However, I don’t think a member of SLT should even think they can ask for work to be completed over the holidays.

    People who work in schools do create a culture of working endlessly as a self-sacrifice. It’s sometimes a reaction to the fact that some people don’t pull their weight and therefore in order to distance oneself you have to be seen to be different.

    Many reasons for it but in the end it is detrimental to not have some sort of expectation that the work we do should match the hours we actually get paid for. It should be a priority to ensure that this can happen – that’s how successful businesses with high productivity and low sickness are run.

  3. Happens to us TAs too. I’ve been trying to get a meeting with SLT about the school website for months and on the last day I collared the Head to arrange a meeting for September. Got the reply ‘Ah, yes, right, well when do you actually go on holiday?…’ to which I quite firmly replied ‘This afternoon for five weeks’. He got my point 😉

    Single status (with fixed hours/weeks etc) has helped with the problem of doing ‘extras’ a bit, but it’ll always be there. Difficulty comes when it becomes an expectation.

  4. I wonder if part of it is also a (possibly subconscious) attempt to counter the ‘teacher-bashing’ that often occurs. I mean, when we hear “Teachers only work 9-3” or “You get so many holidays, stop whinging about how much work you do”, then we might feel inclined to show that we ARE working during the holidays and that we DO work beyond the bell. (By the way, it’s mid-winter here in Australia – all these tweets and blogs and whatnot about summer holidays make me quite sad! I still have 7 weeks before holidays.)

  5. Years ago when I used to work in a lab, there was someone who made a point to be the first one in. Then came Ramadan. My boss told me I could change my hours to suit my eating times during Ramadan. I started coming in early, around 5.00 am (during Ramadan we stop eating at sunrise and then eat again at sunset) and leaving early too. The person didn’t know why I was coming in early and wasn’t best pleased. He started coming in earlier than normal but still didn’t “beat” me. My boss told me not to tell this person why I was coming in early as we all were enjoying this so much!

  6. I think it’s pretty much the done thing for teachers to work during their holidays; it’s expected. There isn’t enough time during the usual working day to get all your displays updated regularly, for example. In fact, I am planning my own conspicuous work whereby my medium term planning, groupings etc get sent to SLT via email exactly in the middle of August. I feel I have to do this because I am the only full time teacher in my school with children (everyone else is either part time or single and childless) and I have to be seen to do as much, if not more, than those who have devoted their entire existence to The Cause.

    The worst kind of conspicuous work is the new ‘normal’ of part time teachers coming in to work to plan, make displays, mark, collaborate with colleagues and attend meetings during their days off. I can’t compete with these people who can afford to exist on part time wages, these middle class mums who just love making the world’s best displays. They say, “Well, I choose to go part time so that I can work during my days off and then I can have my weekends with my children!” They work 40 hours a week and are paid for about 20, so there is an expectation that teachers who are paid for 40 hour weeks are expected to work 80. The new ‘normal’ is based on the rhetoric that if you cared about the education of children, you would be willing to work for free.

  7. I blew an interview to be an HMI when they told me that I might have to work some Sundays. It would be a 2:30 hour drive to Nottingham, so I asked how many Sundays I’d have to drive in. The panel laughed, and said, no, there was no need to come in. I’d have to do some work at home, on some Sundays. I laughed, “oh, you mean, like a teacher?”
    They were right not to take me!

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