the cult of overwork
June 19, 2014, 7:08 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , ,

Reginald Herman

Working excessive hours results in low quality and productivity, fatigue, mistakes etc. But we still overwork. That, I suppose is what makes overwork a cult. Cults are groups with belief systems that are dubious and often deleterious. Koolaid anyone?

So in our work we cling to dubious beliefs. Why? I think the US is more committed to this cult than most other places. In my last job interview, after nearly 20 years commitment to my profession, I was offered, by a very earnest man ten years my senior, two weeks vacation.

Why do the people of the US work longer than the people of western Europe, as an example? No doubt a million reasons. I think of the US as a country of aspiring immigrants who have allowed themselves to become unbalanced in their lives. Government oversight is pushed to the side, the safety net all but dismantled, the myth that hard work will lead to success firmly in place, the odious myth that you deserve your relative successes and failures ascendant, and a million people striving to prove themselves – all of these conspire to turn us further and further away from a life in which work is held in balance with other equally fulfilling uses of our time.

Of course the original immigrant was the puritan Pilgrim, who brought with him a dour, retributive, shame and blame, angry sense of the world: a “slavish literalness, [a] deficient sense of proportion, a bearing down upon minutiae with the same emphasis brought to larger and fundamental points.” (Perry Miller, The Puritans) That may have something to do with it: the minutiae of working every minute with every ounce of effort precluding the more fundamental point of living one’s life well.

So, in spite of all of the evidence that overwork is not good for business, or health or a balanced life, we go on working. Definitely a cult.

The perplexing thing about the cult of overwork is that, as we’ve known for a while, long hours diminish both productivity and quality. Among industrial workers, overtime raises the rate of mistakes and safety mishaps; likewise, for knowledge workers fatigue and sleep-deprivation make it hard to perform at a high cognitive level. As Solomon put it, past a certain point overworked people become “less efficient and less effective.” And the effects are cumulative. The bankers Michel studied started to break down in their fourth year on the job. They suffered from depression, anxiety, and immune-system problems, and performance reviews showed that their creativity and judgment declined.

The Cult of Overwork, James Surowiecki


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