Three Longs & Three Shorts

Why do we buy into the ‘cult’ of overwork?

Those of us in Marcellus who spent our twenties and thirties burning the midnight oil realised in the middle our careers that overwork can destroy your health, your family life and pretty much everything else that makes life worth living. Now we keep hearing that Covid has actually made things worse on this front: “New studies show that workers around the world are putting in an average of 9.2 hours of unpaid overtime per week – up from 7.3 hours just a year ago. Co-working spaces are filled with posters urging us to “rise and grind” or “hustle harder”. Billionaire tech entrepreneurs advocate sacrificing sleep so that people can “change the world”. And since the pandemic hit, our work weeks have gotten longer; we send emails and Slack messages at midnight as boundaries between our personal and professional lives dissolve.”
This piece delves into why millions of people across the world – many of them living in developed world countries – buy into the cult of overwork. The origins of this overwork ethic says this piece lie in religion: “The roots of this phenomenon can be traced back to the ‘Protestant work ethic’ in the 16th Century – a worldview held by white Protestants in Europe that made hard work and the quest for profit seem virtuous. Sally Maitlis, professor of organisational behaviour and leadership at the University of Oxford, says that “later, the drive for efficiency that arose out of the Industrial Revolution”, as well as the way we prize productivity, have “further embedded the value of consistent hard work, often at the cost of personal wellbeing”.”
However, what really put the ‘overwork’ phenomenon on steroids was the rise of free market economics in the 1980s under the enlightened leadership of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US: “Fast forward to the yuppie age of Thatcher and Reagan, when spending long hours at the office to support the upwardly mobile lifestyle and the rampant consumerism of the decade became more commonplace. Afterward, in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, workaholics started to be identified not by blazers but rather hoodies, as tech start-ups grew into giants like Google and Facebook, and power shifted to Silicon Valley.
Society started to glorify the entrepreneurs who said they wanted to change the world, and told us how they structured their (very long) days for maximum greatness. Maitlis highlights a motivational shift between the Gordon Gekkos and the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world; the latter felt they were fueled by “passion for the product or service, or for a higher purpose””
Over the past two decades, a combination of free market forces (eg. borrow a shedload of money to pay for your university education and then buy a bigger house than you can afford by taking a massive home loan), societal pressures and technology (eg. displaying on Insta or Facebook your happening life), has put the overwork phenomenon on hyperdrive: “These days, many people work long hours to pay off debt, to simply keep their jobs or to make that crucial next step up the ladder (and in many cases, companies expect employees to work long hours and be constantly available). But for those who embrace the overwork culture, there’s also a performative element, whether that manifests as a new car to show off, a ‘dream career’ doing something meaningful or even exhaustion that can be displayed like a bizarre kind of trophy….
Yet even though we’re working harder than ever, and young workers are faced with a potentially toxic combination of greater financial pressures (student debt, combined with lower salaries and higher house prices), pressure to find ‘their passion’ and pressure to find a stable job in an increasingly insecure job market, there may be some small signs of change.
In March, a mock employee survey by 13 first-year analysts at Goldman Sachs found its way into the public eye. Respondents said they averaged 95-hour workweeks and slept five hours a night. “This is beyond the level of ‘hard-working’, this is inhumane/abuse,” said one respondent to the survey, which the BBC has seen…”
So what is the way forward? Unfortunately, the author can’t see a way forward. However, he leaves us with a simple but powerful analogy: “We’re at a crossroads: we can prioritise our wellbeing, or prioritise sending an email at 0300 because it’ll impress the boss. Letting people work from home can only go so far in easing the burden – it has to be up to the workers to stop making burnout somehow desirable, and up to the companies to stop making the workers feel like they should.
“Workplaces can be very unhealthy environments – if there was any time to change the way we work, now is the time to do it,” says Maslach. “If you take a plant and put it in a pot and don’t water it and give it lousy soil and not enough sun, I don’t care how gorgeous the plant was to begin with – it isn’t going to thrive.””