Lessons from Aesop’s The Ass and His Masters: The donkey’s perspectives

This blog is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center

When I was a child, my parents asked me to read a famous fable by Aesop about a donkey and his masters, with the hope that I would grow up to be a morally upright and responsible citizen. This well-known story is about the ill fate of a discontent donkey who wished for a different master for his work was hard, and his master was harsh. God listened to the donkey’s wish and granted him different masters, each working him more harshly than the previous one. The moral of the story is familiar to all of us: Those who are not content with their realities and lose sight of patience, perseverance, resignation, and endurance will eventually find themselves in worse situations than they were previously. So, endure and be grateful.

Human resources, employee relations, and organizational psychologists and sociologists view employee engagement as the holy grail that connects employee performance to organizational performance and effectiveness. Primarily discussed from perspectives of social exchange, job demand & resources (J.D. & R), or relationship management, employee engagement has been viewed as voluntary, desirable, and sustainable through certain organizational and relational interplays. In other words, when organizations provide socio-emotional resources and relational support to employees, it generates psychological obligations from employees to repay the organization by increasing the efforts and energy they place in their jobs (i.e., job engagement).

Privy to this insight, many organizations have increased support of socio-emotional resources for employees via wellness programs to extract higher job engagement from employees in return. Unfortunately, a reality that has been largely overlooked in engagement studies is that employees’ psychological resources are not unlimited. Kahn (1990) laid out three psychological conditions for inner work motivations to take place (i.e., meaningfulness, safety, and availability to be fully invested in one’s job). Out of these three conditions, psychological availability, “the sense of having the physical, emotional, and psychological resources to personally engage at a particular moment” (Kahn, 1990, p. 714), describes the ephemeral state of psychological resources.

Kahn noted that the looseness of the work and nonwork boundaries could increase availability in people from drawing on energies generated outside the workplace. On the other hand, the boundary-crossing demands from work and nonwork could also deplete psychological resources. As an employee, like the donkey in the story, putting my whole self for role performance sounds exhausting. The idea of the disgruntled donkey in Aesop’s fable is farfetched from the reality of many employees whose exhaustion and job demands are real (not because they are lazy or ungrateful for the support or the job). Expectations to stay connected to job demands have become nearly constant and resources are limited.

In response to the Great Reshuffle of the U.S. workforce, many organizations have started providing flexibility with work hours and remote work options. However, extended physical and mental efforts for the job negatively affect employee health and work performance (Schaufeli & Bakker, 2004). While work flexibilities may allow employees to reduce demands from outside the workplace, the remote work and flexible work hours also have allowed work stress and demands to permeate into nonwork spaces, reducing opportunities for employees to detach from work. In contemporary society, workplace telepressure (a preoccupation with and an urge to respond quickly to work-related electronic messages, Barber & Santuzi, 2015) and expectations to stay connected and available to job demands contribute to stress overload and feelings of exhaustion in employees (Santuzzi & Barber, 2018).

Engagement can’t be sustained for an extended period if employees aren’t allowed to disconnect from their jobs. No words of heroic praise or appreciation for dedication and empathy can sustain psychological availability in employees, committing the whole self to a job that never seems to allow any real break to recover.

Belgium has recently passed a law that prohibits federal organizations from contacting federal employees after work hours, understanding employees’ need to disconnect from their work roles for their well-being. In the U.S., four-working days have started getting attention from a few forward-thinking organizations to give employees more time to detach from work. Meta recently announced that it would remove employee perks such as free laundry and dry cleaning as part of the broader culture reform.

The recent Global Talent Trends 2022 report by LinkedIn offers insights into the importance of creating an organizational culture that genuinely centers on building a healthy, human-centered culture to attract and retain talent (Lobosco, 2022). We like discussing mutually beneficial relationships between an organization and its various stakeholders. In the case of employee-organization relationships, what would a truly mutually beneficial relationship look like? Providing resources and support to employees so they can perform at the highest capacity for the organization? The lesson from The Donkey and His Masters should not be about demanding the donkey to endure and be grateful for the food that he needs to keep carrying heavy loads day after day. But the lesson here is for the masters: Allow the donkey to go out and play in the fields with his friends on weekends, but preferably three days a week and no emails and calls on the off-work days, please.

Minjeong Kang, Ph. D., is an associate professor and teaches strategic communication courses at the Media School, Indiana University. Her research interests are understanding the concept of public engagement in various stakeholder contexts such as member, employee, and volunteer relations and its positive impacts in eliciting supportive communication and behavioral outcomes.

References:

Barber, L. K., & Santuzzi, A. M. (2015). Please respond ASAP: Workplace telepressure and employee recovery. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 20, 172-189. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0038278

Kahn, W. A. (1990). Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Academy of management journal, 33(4), 692-724.

Lobosco, M. (2022, January 18). The reinvention of company culture: Why it should be your top priority this year. LinkedIn Talent Blog. https://www.linkedin.com/business/talent/blog/talent-strategy/global-talent-trends-report?trk=MarkLinkedInPost-global-talent-trends-2022

Macey, W. H., & Schneider, B. (2008). The meaning of employee engagement. Industrial and organizational Psychology, 1(1), 3-30.

Santuzzi, A. M., & Barber, L. K. (2018). Workplace telepressure and worker well-being: The intervening role of psychological detachment. Occupational Health Science. Advanced online publication. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41542-018-0022-8

Schaufeli, W. B., & Bakker, A. B. (2004). Job demands, job resources, and their relationship with burnout and engagement: A multi-sample study. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 25, 293-315. https://doi.org/10.1002/job.248

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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