The lockdown brought about by the global pandemic saw, for many, their working lives put on hold. In the UK 8.9 million – that is one in four workers – were furloughed and millions more saw their daily commute end with orders to work from home.

Suddenly we had time on our hands and work did not dominate our lives. For many it saw communities coming together, caring for each other with people checking in on their co-workers just to see how they were rather than with a work-related query.

For many years employee wellbeing has risen up the corporate agenda, with 68 per cent of organisations in the UK now having a wellbeing strategy in place in 2019 according to the Rewards & Employee Benefits Association.

But as work slowly returns to normal and furlough schemes come to an end will this care for the co-worker continue?

Our research has shown, that despite organisations’ increasing investment in employee wellbeing and workers’ own best intentions, caring for our co-workers hits an inevitable dilemma in the workplace. It seems caring for co-workers and caring for work always involves a trade-off.

A traditional Western view of morality at work puts the organisation’s goals above the individual, so when it comes to caring for your co-worker it should not come at the expense of your work.

But caring for your work often means there is no time left to care for your co-workers as well. There is ample evidence that caring for work and caring for co-workers may not always be compatible. Among workers’ many responsibilities at work and in their job description, caring for co-workers is rarely among them, even for managers the word caring does not tally with their overseeing of staff.

Especially as caring for others means being responsive to their needs, emotions, and sometimes opening up to their troubled state of mind. In contrast, being 'professional' involves focusing on the task, setting aside personal issues and so distancing oneself from ones colleagues.

We decided to examine the dilemma between caring for work and caring for our fellow workers in two very different settings – a PR agency in France and a French child protection agency. It combined ethnographic observations at the workplaces of meetings, office work, spontaneous interactions, lunch times, morning arrivals and more, with interviews of staff plus analysis of human resource management documents, emails, presentations and internal documents.

Both organisations dealt with the dilemma differently. At the PR agency, the competitive nature of the industry meant there was only time to care for the work. The dilemma between profit and efficiency and co-workers' wellbeing often saw wellbeing losing out.

The staff were genuinely friendly to each other, on the face of it at least, but in order to be successful everything has to be poured into caring for work; people try not to be available for deep relationships. They would converse as long as it didn’t get in the way of work tasks.

“Personal issues should stay personal issues,” said one member of staff, while another added: "I do not mind knowing where they went for dinner last night or what they had for breakfast [laughing]. But the stuff like 'I haven't slept', 'I'm tired', 'I had a bad weekend', I could do without actually."

It was the culture to keep personal and professional lives separate, so that the atmosphere was always cheerful in the office. Thus, nobody unloaded their problems, emotions were self-regulated and kept away from the office, allowing care for work to dominate and any potential dilemma of looking after fellow workers avoided.

How does culture help employee wellbeing?

Even when the personal world broke into the professional environment it was ignored. When a pregnant member of staff missed her check-up at the hospital because of a client meeting her boss said nothing and did nothing to help or reassure her. And on another occasion an employee on sick leave due to burnout was not helped back to work, but instead eventually dismissed because of poor performance.

In contrast, at the child protection agency, the dilemma between caring for work or for co-workers was embraced. Rather than supressing the dilemma of care allocation, employees acknowledged and confronted it on a daily basis.

Staff were keen to care for each other and help with personal worries as well as professional difficulties, yet the workload was so high that people sometimes had to trade off their offer of support because it was not possible.

The organisation was understaffed and the staff underpaid, yet they derived meaning from their job. But because there was so much work they didn’t always have time to look after each other, so they sacrificed their own wellbeing.

One social care worker said it was her “duty to ask the other [co-worker] what is going on and then, well, to see how I can help her.” But she acknowledged this was not always possible when she had to deal with multiple cases or an emergency situation of a child needing foster parents or a place to stay immediately.

Despite the desire to help each other and genuinely caring for their colleagues, people working in the child protection agency were not always polite. Unlike at the PR agency where politeness and a jovial atmosphere persisted, sometimes staff did not acknowledge each other in the morning and a meeting started without a member of the team because they forgot about her.

They knew about each other’s personal lives and made it their business to ask about each other’s welfare. They did not distinguish between the personal and professional lives. And yet they did not work beyond their allotted hours and didn’t take their work home – unlike at the PR agency. Their care for each other meant they realised the importance of demarcating home life and work to protect themselves from burnout.

Staff openly acknowledged the dilemma of caring for each other and for work, even joking about it. When two members of staff became pregnant it caused laughter at first as they faced an even bigger workload, but they were congratulated as well. At the PR agency it was hidden and ignored.

The two workplaces illustrate how the demand for care is infinite but resources are limited. Thus, care is political, how we distribute it, who provides care and how value it is a political choice.

Demarcating personal and professional selves, as happened at the PR agency, is a political choice that undermines care in the workplace. At the PR agency the personal life was not allowed to impinge on staff’s commitment to work, precisely because that would make explicit the care dilemma and the need to care for co-workers.

Our study finds that only when people at work are seen as a whole human being – and not just a worker or professional  can true caring for co-workers materialise. When the human side of workers is hidden or ignored it allows the caring for work to override them. Too often the need for productivity, performance and profit implicitly leads to the suppression of the dilemma of caring.

If companies are to truly embrace their wellbeing strategies and see the mental and physical health of their staff as a priority then dividing the personal and the professional has to end and the dilemma brought into the open.

Our research shows that caring for workers means seeing them as a whole person. Structures and processes are needed to promote and embed this understanding, and build a culture for care in the workplace to thrive.

Further reading:

Antoni, A., Reinecke, J. and Fotaki, M. (2020) "Caring or not caring for coworkers? An empirical exploration of the dilemma of care allocation in the workplace", Business Ethics Quarterly.

Fotaki, M., Islam, G, & Antoni, A. 2019. Business ethics and care in organizations. London: Routledge.

Fotaki, M. (2015). Why and how is compassion necessary to provide good quality healthcare? International journal of health policy and management.

Marianna Fotaki is Professor of Business Ethics and teaches Strategic Leadership and Ethics on MSc Marketing & Strategy plus Governance and Corporate Responsibility on the suite of MSc Business courses. She also lectures on Ethical Issues in Contemporary Business on the Undergraduate programme.

For more articles on the Future of Work sign up to Core Insights here.