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The ideal worker is an ideal and a concept that has been pervasive in modern working rhetoric for decades. The idea that a worker is someone that is efficient, logical, non- emotional, hard-working and someone that is able to work despite other personal, environmental or social commitments or situations that may be occurring at the same time. Law professor, Joan Williams describes the workplace as having been built around the idea of ideal workers, or people who are full time and can use their time to focus solely on work as they have no or little outside work responsibilities.  The idea of this comes from an employee that removes their family responsibilities out of sight.

The ideal worker is expected to always be available, to travel and relocate, someone who starts work in their early 20s and works full time for the next 40 years straight.  This reflects the breadwinner/ home maker model which originated from the industrial revolution and lasted until the mid 20th century when women were more readily entered the workforce.

Long hours are often seen as a requirement at work and often seen as essential indicators for promotion in managerial and professional jobs, even if these long hours highlight inefficiency.  The ideal worker trope is gendered, to the extent that work is often aligned with almost a robotic efficiency. This is seen in various research studies that highlight that when professional women exit from work and return after having a child, they were disadvantaged as they were no longer available ‘any time’ as presenteeism, being on call and face time are disproportionately rewarded in the workplace.

Additionally, the additional responsibilities that often fall on women are likely to affect them within the workplace;  for example housework, caring responsibilities of children and elderly relatives, planning and organising in the home as well as in the workplace. These extra responsibilities are often likely to increase a mental load; often adding additional strain.

Many organisations tend to reinforce this un-even and unequal workforce when they make working long hours, reward outputs such as monetary gain, and winning business the only for success.

So, if this is the case in many organisations, how can we redraw what is seen to be an ‘ideal worker?’ changes to organisations that may have retipped the balance, so more people are ‘rejecting’ the idea of a singular, rigid ‘ideal worker cover the following; for example an increase in part-time and contract working, other flexible working adaptations e.g. term time only working, and shared parental leave, more widespread virtual working as a consequence of COVID-19 and more focus on justice, fairness, equity and wellbeing in modern workplaces. These shifts have led many people to think about their relationship with work and has led organisations to think about how they can attract and retain employees.

Ways for individuals, teams and organisations to embrace difference and work with different types of people in a modern and meaningful way are plenty. Some ideas can include

  • Listen to your employees to understand what they really want, in terms of career, working style and ways of working, then try to incorporate this more into your organisational design. You can do this by running staff surveys, running focus group and having frequent team and organisational meetings
  • Communicate to your teams frequently – ensure there are adequate mechanisms and ways people can adapt to change
  • Champion inclusion – are there clear and equal ways for people, especially those in marginalised groups, to progress; is there fair selection processes for people, are there a variety of ways to measure success.

In conclusion, the concept of the “ideal worker” has long been ingrained in workplace culture, perpetuating rigid expectations that often disadvantage certain groups, particularly women. However, with evolving societal norms and the recognition of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion, there is a growing momentum to redefine this outdated archetype.

Organisations are increasingly realising the benefits of embracing flexibility and accommodating the diverse needs of their workforce. From part-time and contract arrangements to shared parental leave and virtual work options catalysed by the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a shift towards creating more inclusive and equitable workplaces.

As we navigate the complexities of the modern workplace, it’s imperative for individuals, teams, and organisations to embrace differences and work collaboratively towards a more inclusive and meaningful future. By collectively challenging the notion of the “ideal worker” and prioritising diversity and flexibility, we can foster environments where everyone can thrive and contribute their unique talents towards shared success.

Grace Mansah-Owusu
Dr Grace Mansah-Owusu
Organisational Psychologist | Website

Grace is a chartered psychologist, diversity and inclusion expert, trainer, career coach and psychotherapist. She has over twelve years of experience working in people and organisational development, research and facilitation roles in the for purpose sector, academia, transport and logistics and various consultancies. Building on her academic and theoretical knowledge, Grace provides opportunities for people to grow, develop and flourish in the workplace. She is passionate about research, career development and all in all curious about people. Grace has three times been recognised on HR Magazine’s HR Most Influential list for thinkers and practitioners whilst also campaigning for diversity and inclusion within psychology disciplines for over five years. She has also presented at conferences and events for CIPD, HR Magazine, Richmond Events and the British Psychological Society.