42 votes

Workism Is Making Americans Miserable

31 comments

  1. [3]
    patience_limited Link
    A weirdly timely article - I'm exhilarated, saddened, and a little terrified to note that I've decided to resign from my job this week. There are a lot of different inputs feeding this, but...

    What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.

    There is something slyly dystopian about an economic system that has convinced the most indebted generation in American history to put purpose over paycheck. Indeed, if you were designing a Black Mirror labor force that encouraged overwork without higher wages, what might you do? Perhaps you’d persuade educated young people that income comes second; that no job is just a job; and that the only real reward from work is the ineffable glow of purpose. It is a diabolical game that creates a prize so tantalizing yet rare that almost nobody wins, but everybody feels obligated to play forever.

    A weirdly timely article - I'm exhilarated, saddened, and a little terrified to note that I've decided to resign from my job this week.

    There are a lot of different inputs feeding this, but deprogramming myself from the cult of work as the sole source of meaning in life is a significant factor. It's really tough to do this in healthcare - however tangentially, you can cling to meaning by telling yourself you're contributing to keeping people alive and healthy.

    That starts to get highly questionable when the basic demands of capitalist production and indebtedness require sacrificing your own health and life.

    24 votes
    1. [2]
      Catt Link Parent
      This topic really hits home for me. I graduated and worked as an engineer and we really pride ourselves as engineers, and "having a high tolerance to pain". Basically we can be a cult that's happy...

      This topic really hits home for me. I graduated and worked as an engineer and we really pride ourselves as engineers, and "having a high tolerance to pain". Basically we can be a cult that's happy to work ourselves to death and call it being professional.

      Congrats on resigning and moving forward in a way of your own choosing!

      15 votes
      1. patience_limited Link Parent
        Tell me about it - I travel with a group of people (not just engineers) who are practically competing to see how badly they can take care of themselves in passionate pursuit of work. Sometimes...

        Tell me about it - I travel with a group of people (not just engineers) who are practically competing to see how badly they can take care of themselves in passionate pursuit of work.

        Sometimes it's a "work hard, play hard" ethos. I knew several people who were on their way to, or recovering from, serious drinking problems. Most had been divorced at least once.

        Mostly, it's just a matter of over-focusing on work, and over-managing natural biological signals of fatigue and distress. We jokingly compared our medications recently. While quaffing wine and beer at the airport, of course. Not one of us was without prescription anxiolytics, antidepressants, attention enhancers, and/or sleeping aids.

        7 votes
  2. [16]
    Bedevere Link
    I think it's great that we have the capital and the technology to really enable those workaholics who love their work to do tremendous things and magnify the results of their labor a thousand-fold...

    I think it's great that we have the capital and the technology to really enable those workaholics who love their work to do tremendous things and magnify the results of their labor a thousand-fold compared to times past, but I lament the expectation that everyone in a white collar job have to work so hard.

    My first job out of college I was scolded for only being in the office 40 hours a week, since that was the "bare minimum". I never felt like I could be productive as a programmer 8 hours a day, let alone more than that. I started working 6 days a week back then so I could have 7 hour days. I think there's a mixture of people who want to work long hours and define their identity by it, and those who are forced to, since there is little room in the corporate culture for anything between the "all" and "nothing".

    11 votes
    1. [8]
      NaraVara Link Parent
      Honestly most workaholics don't actually accomplish tremendous things with their additional hours. They just work really inefficiently and don't know how to prioritize. In my experience,...

      enable those workaholics who love their work to do tremendous things

      Honestly most workaholics don't actually accomplish tremendous things with their additional hours. They just work really inefficiently and don't know how to prioritize. In my experience, workaholism correlates strongly with really anxious personalities. Being able to focus on work probably prevents them from focusing on their anxieties and it also means they are willing to go down a million unproductive rabbit holes to allay their sense of worry.

      And workplace cultures can bring this out of people too. I used to work in a place where everyone would pick apart every word in an email and find excuses to yell at each other over disagreements on punctuation. At some point I found myself taking 30 minutes being anxious about sending a short email because there really was no telling who would take offense. It encouraged me to procrastinate, but I was procrastinating by "working" (drafting and redrafting an email) rather than solving any meaningful problems.

      10 votes
      1. [7]
        patience_limited (edited ) Link Parent
        I think you're confusing workaholics with people who are actually passionate about, and find meaning in, their jobs. For a long time, I was crazy enough about my work that I got an enormous amount...

        I think you're confusing workaholics with people who are actually passionate about, and find meaning in, their jobs.

        For a long time, I was crazy enough about my work that I got an enormous amount done, and neglected to notice a corporate culture which was exploitive enough that I hired in for a job which used to be done by three people. That's not bragging, by the way, just an acknowledgement that I was a member of the article's named cult of work-as-religion.

        By the time it became evident how ridiculous this was, I didn't have enough reserve capacity to mount an effective protest, didn't have time (or physical presence, due to travel) to build strong alliances, management was getting worse, and the culture had grown so toxic people were quitting in droves.

        I won't name the company, but I'll note that it currently has a 2.5 Glassdoor rating, trending downward. Unsurprisingly, they're having recruiting problems.

        I don't wish any of my co-workers ill, there are a number of great people who are as committed as I was when I started, but I'd wish they could wake up and let go of the place for their own good.

        4 votes
        1. [6]
          vivaria Link Parent
          If you had to speak to your past self right out of college, what advice would you give them to avoid the pitfall you fell into? (asking as someone in college and worried about my perfectionist...

          If you had to speak to your past self right out of college, what advice would you give them to avoid the pitfall you fell into?

          (asking as someone in college and worried about my perfectionist tendency to overwork myself)

          7 votes
          1. [3]
            masochist Link Parent
            Not the person you asked, but a few things I keep in mind. I work from home, so it can be even harder for me, but I put strict boundaries on things. I don't open my laptop until I'm ready to work,...

            Not the person you asked, but a few things I keep in mind. I work from home, so it can be even harder for me, but I put strict boundaries on things. I don't open my laptop until I'm ready to work, I put my laptop away at the end of the day, and I do not open it unless I'm working. I'm salaried, so my day starts and ends on a set schedule. I used to be on a team that had a different schedule sometimes, and I got off of that team as quickly as I could so I could have a predictable schedule. Remember that your employer doesn't care about you and will replace you in a week if you quit or collapse due to exhaustion or stress. Remember that, for almost every job, your work will be there waiting for you tomorrow. Most tasks are not time critical, no matter what your customer or your manager says. Someone I knew on IRC several years ago said something that has stuck with me far more than anything else I remember about him: work to live, don't live to work.

            6 votes
            1. [2]
              vivaria Link Parent
              It's lovely having a predictable schedule, isn't it? It's one of my primary lights at the end of the tunnel for this degree. I'm right sick of not knowing when I'll get another large block of free...

              It's lovely having a predictable schedule, isn't it? It's one of my primary lights at the end of the tunnel for this degree. I'm right sick of not knowing when I'll get another large block of free time between these unpredictable bursts of work and study.

              1. masochist Link Parent
                That predictable schedule is really important to me. I get very annoyed when my schedule changes unexpectedly, because it feels like I don't have agency over my time and my life. Loss of agency is...

                That predictable schedule is really important to me. I get very annoyed when my schedule changes unexpectedly, because it feels like I don't have agency over my time and my life. Loss of agency is a big, big deal for me, and it extends to every element of my life, even which games I enjoy. I have Opinions™ about Werewolf.

                1 vote
          2. [2]
            patience_limited Link Parent
            Late response, my apologies! There are going to be some treacly cliches to follow, but they're not wrong. Give more effort to perfecting your bonds with loved ones than you give to your job....

            Late response, my apologies! There are going to be some treacly cliches to follow, but they're not wrong.

            1. Give more effort to perfecting your bonds with loved ones than you give to your job. You'll spend far more time with them, and their love will be the source of the memories you treasure.

            2. Know what's fun for you. Do it as much, as often, and with as many different people as safely possible. Money is necessary up to a point, but you learn from what engages your sense of fun. You connect to other people through shared experiences of fun. I'm not talking about mindless distractions, but rather the things that make you genuinely say, "I had a great time!". Stay in touch with that sense - when it fades, try something new. Repeat ad infinitum.

            3. Pay attention to craft in whatever you choose for work. Even in the hardest mathematics and sciences, there's room for refined judgement and a willingness to surpass tradition, a conscious effort to find balance and rightness. When you strive for craftsmanship, you're not settling for mediocrity, you're continually seeking knowledge of how to do better. This is satisfying in itself, and can be a lifelong journey regardless of whether you began with "passion". Craft is its own form of discipline - pursuing it with a whole and open heart will make every setback into a chance to learn and grow. Doesn't matter if you're stuck working fast food, sweeping floors, driving for Uber, or picking in the fields, that awareness of opportunities to improve is what gets your head, and eventually the rest of your life, into a better place.

            Beware of large rewards for jobs that don't engage your sense of craft, that richly remunerate the perfection of mediocrity.

            1. It's sometimes hard to distinguish between craft and perfectionism. The crucial distinction is that the craftsperson can measure risks, accept being wrong, and move on to do better the next time. The perfectionist spends vast energy to stand still, because the pain of being wrong is too great. There's too much need of good work, to wait for perfect, eternal answers.

            I'll keep thinking about this, but it's a start.

            3 votes
            1. vivaria Link Parent
              Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response. I'm studying for an awful midterm tomorrow in data analysis & pattern rec, so I also will probably be a bit late with a good...

              Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response. I'm studying for an awful midterm tomorrow in data analysis & pattern rec, so I also will probably be a bit late with a good response if we want to continue this chat, but I did want to give a quick message back! This is exactly what I was looking forward to when I signed up for Tildes.

    2. [5]
      Gaywallet Link Parent
      And that's when you resign from your job. If they don't respect my right to have a life outside of work, they don't deserve me. The reality is I get more accomplished in less time than most of my...

      I was scolded for only being in the office 40 hours a week

      And that's when you resign from your job.

      If they don't respect my right to have a life outside of work, they don't deserve me. The reality is I get more accomplished in less time than most of my peers, and even if I don't I bring skills that they don't have and that they need.

      I have made it a point to never work more than 40 hour weeks unless absolutely necessary and I usually work less than 40 hours the following week to make up for it. I am unique among my colleagues, many of which have sent me emails at 10pm and I've seen stay late in the office. I'm positive some are regularly putting in 50-60 hour weeks, and I feel sad for them to allow work to dominate their lives in this manner.

      It's very possible to find a place where you are valued even without working excessively and I suggest you do so for your own sanity.

      7 votes
      1. [4]
        Gully_Foyles Link Parent
        Most studies also show that job efficiency drops off significantly the more hours you work. If I am being overworked, I question the efficiency of the management and company. Either they need to...

        Most studies also show that job efficiency drops off significantly the more hours you work. If I am being overworked, I question the efficiency of the management and company. Either they need to hire additional workers, or retool their processes to make them more efficient.

        7 votes
        1. [3]
          patience_limited (edited ) Link Parent
          Yeah, I've been questioning the efficiency of Band-Aid and duct tape solutions for years (especially when my long hours are the Band-Aid), and proposing alternatives complete with ROI....

          Yeah, I've been questioning the efficiency of Band-Aid and duct tape solutions for years (especially when my long hours are the Band-Aid), and proposing alternatives complete with ROI. Nonetheless, there's only a budget for Band-Aids because they're familiar to the C-suite, and they don't impact the profit margin or short-run share price.

          But I'll admit complicity in the situation.

          I'm one of those kidding themselves that they're not the "average" person whose efficiency and productivity drops.

          The dirty secret about workaholism (and 'workism") is that it's really a pattern of wired-in dopamine rewards and withdrawal punishments.

          People can literally get drunk on their own success, and collapse in abject misery on deferred success or failure. That's the same mechanism of intermittent reward at work in gambling addiction. You'll work harder and harder for ever-diminishing rewards, and/or start filling in with exogenous drugs for the same effect.

          1 vote
          1. [2]
            Gully_Foyles Link Parent
            Yes, and the only good way to deal with that kind of environment is to get out. There's nothing worse that working at a place where everyone brags about how many late nights they've had to pull...

            Yes, and the only good way to deal with that kind of environment is to get out. There's nothing worse that working at a place where everyone brags about how many late nights they've had to pull and then start shaming you if you want to work reasonable hours.

            Management is usually slow to address this kind of problem because they usually don't see it as a problem in the first place. Not until people start burning out and the best talent starts leaving for greener pastures that is.

            2 votes
            1. patience_limited Link Parent
              I was talking with a friend this weekend and referred to it as "strip-mining employees' dedication". It doesn't matter how passionate we are about what we're doing, at the end of the day, an...

              I was talking with a friend this weekend and referred to it as "strip-mining employees' dedication". It doesn't matter how passionate we are about what we're doing, at the end of the day, an organization which doesn't foster its workers' resilience is going to fail.

              1 vote
    3. patience_limited Link Parent
      There's a marvelous running gag in the Canadian sitcom, Letterkenny, where an outwardly stoic character uses the phrase, "Do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life" as an excuse...

      There's a marvelous running gag in the Canadian sitcom, Letterkenny, where an outwardly stoic character uses the phrase, "Do what you love, and you'll never work a day in your life" as an excuse to deflect any and all emotional turmoil. That's almost the definition of workaholism.

      Aside from the general economic terrors of needing a wage to ensure subsistence, there's the terrible spiral of working more, having less life, and working more to fill the void. It's not so much an expectation, as a cascade of consequences.

      I'm delighted you've found a balance - hold on tightly to that.

      5 votes
    4. papasquat Link Parent
      Yesterday, a coworker of mine called me at 11pm. I hazily woke up to the vibration of my phone and fell back asleep. In the morning, I almost thought I'd dreamed it, so I looked at my phone, and...

      Yesterday, a coworker of mine called me at 11pm. I hazily woke up to the vibration of my phone and fell back asleep. In the morning, I almost thought I'd dreamed it, so I looked at my phone, and sure enough I missed a call from him. I do work at a job where I'm expected to be on call sometimes; however, this was not one of those times.
      I called him a little later in the morning and told him that I was sorry I missed his call, my phone was on vibrate. His response was "Well maybe it shouldn't be".

      I thought that was such an out there reply it honestly took me back. What's the point of life if the expectation is for everyone to wait around until their job needs them to work at some ungodly hour?

      I plan on continuing to not answer calls from work that late.

      4 votes
  3. [2]
    tiredlemma Link
    So this article hits home for me on a variety of levels, and also has led me to reflect a little bit on these issues. When I was an engineer I was almost always miserable at work. I measured the...

    So this article hits home for me on a variety of levels, and also has led me to reflect a little bit on these issues. When I was an engineer I was almost always miserable at work. I measured the success or failure of my day based on technical progress--was I writing code that was useful pursuant to the stated goals? I nearly never thought so. My days were filled with little bursts of coding punctuated by frustrating meetings driven by messaging I did not understand and little pow-wows with my team about the latest in doom and gloom. The expectation to work long hours without feeling like productivity was possible left me in a dark place for years.

    Now as a senior engineering leader I recognize that work is 80%+ theater, with the technical projects serving as the much abused script of the play in which colleagues, stakeholders, and folks from related outside companies are both the players and the audience. It feels like being in a Colleen McCullough novel about Roman intrigue, and I am happier at work than I have ever been. That said, it is extremely difficult to try and create a sense of meaning and satisfaction for my ICs and even first/second line leaders. I certainly haven't figured this problem out, though I do my best to shield folks from the vagaries of the enterprise. I am not fool enough to believe than any executive action is going to create a Shangri-La for engineers, analysts, and others--especially given the severe dissonance between the nature of their duties and the reality of corporate tech.

    Admittedly I derive a great deal of my personal identity from work, which has been problematic for me throughout my life on several levels. For example, I really don't know what to do with myself when I take my family on vacation and end up feeling pretty dark and brooding, unable to resist logging in to track the email threads or do impromptu calls with folks to keep the theater on its rails. My wife has been amazing in encouraging me to maintain hobbies and other activities outside of work, and that has contributed a great deal to my health, but I come from a long line of workaholics and am afraid that there is no true escape from that for me.

    As some have pointed out, working with people who obsess over work (looking in the mirror) can be harmful to others who don't do so. I know this, and do what I can to limit that harm, but at the end of the day, if you want a place in the biggest game in the world, there's no avoiding paying your dues. I've found that transnational corporate life is designed only for those a few layers down from the C-Suite and up, for those below it can be very ugly. I caution friends and friends' children to avoid life at massive enterprises unless they are committed to taking a hard-stance on the treacherous road up the ladder and willing to admit defeat if it comes.

    There are many career paths that aren't so demanding, at least not to the level of high finance or monstrous companies or politics, and I highly encourage folks to consider if those few extra 10k$ per year are worth the stress and sacrifice. Now, I recognize that the article covers more than just life in the Fortune 500, so I'll say a few things about startups:

    It is almost never worth the cost to your health, wealth, and happiness to pour your soul into a startup. I often see advice saying that one's twenties are the time to do it if you are going to, and having done so myself I strongly disagree. To the degree that you can enjoy your youth! Party, travel, meet people. These things are not restricted to the wealthy, contrary to popular opinion--just don't expect to be invited to the Met Gala or have your life look like these absurd nanoinfluencers on social media. Work at a startup once you've reached a point in life that can sustain the potential financial hit, when you really understand the industry that this group is trying to "disrupt" and can make an intelligent guess w.r.t. their success chance, and don't accept a compensation package without having it reviewed by your lawyer. Corporate can and will destroy your life also, if you let it, but at least you're in the arena shedding blood for a piece of XXX billion $ pie, not some vision predicated on smart blenders or something.

    7 votes
    1. patience_limited (edited ) Link Parent
      Man, I hear you. I've spent the last 7 years working in an odd IT niche that branched within a rung or two of C-suite, and to the victors belong the spoils. The worst of it is, I never had any...

      Man, I hear you. I've spent the last 7 years working in an odd IT niche that branched within a rung or two of C-suite, and to the victors belong the spoils.

      The worst of it is, I never had any ambition to pursue advancement. I was relatively happy doing a mashup of customer relationship management, operations engineering, and project management. I got to solve interesting puzzles all day long, that contributed to taking care of people! The C-suite stayed out of my hair as long as the results were good. I didn't have Byzantine politics to deal with because, for the first few years, I had a boss with a big umbrella. For a long time, no one else wanted the job enough to undermine it.

      The load got too big (I literally couldn't be in multiple places at once). Then the management hat happened, complete with having to manage the employee who wanted the job and didn't get it. Then the useful boss left. We've had multiple re-orgs with staff reductions, and a couple of badly done mergers. As you say, I'm now admitting defeat.

      3 votes
  4. JXM Link
    Not outright. But it does lead to a lot of bad consequences for those around the person who works like that. I'm very much of the, "I'll do my work while I'm here but you don't own my free time...

    Here’s a fair question: Is there anything wrong with hard, even obsessive, work?

    Not outright. But it does lead to a lot of bad consequences for those around the person who works like that.

    I'm very much of the, "I'll do my work while I'm here but you don't own my free time outside of regular work hours" mindset. Most companies don't want to hear that. They expect employees to be at their beck and call 24/7 now (for measly pay too).

    I work in television, so my job is fun a lot of the time, but it isn't who I am. It's a means to an end. It helps me afford to do things I want to do and take care of my family.

    6 votes
  5. Devin Link
    There was a time when the march to progress was about having the work force work less hours with the same or rising pay. What we got instead are all the benefits of productivity, but instead it...

    There was a time when the march to progress was about having the work force work less hours with the same or rising pay. What we got instead are all the benefits of productivity, but instead it meant fewer workers working longer hours for less pay so the march of progress could benefit a few shareholders.

    5 votes
  6. eladnarra Link
    It's weird to fall somewhere in the middle here. I was brought up surrounded by this mentality. I'm not sure if my parents particularly focused on it, but every time careers came up at school it...

    The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism.

    It's weird to fall somewhere in the middle here. I was brought up surrounded by this mentality. I'm not sure if my parents particularly focused on it, but every time careers came up at school it was about how to find your passion and what you're good at. I think I bought into it at the time. I was also something of a workaholic in school; perfectionism often requires it.

    Then I got sick and dropped out of high school. I finally have a college degree after over a decade, but I don't have the "luxury" throwing myself into a job (or graduate degree) that requires you to prove your passion by working overtime. I can work 20 hours a week, so now my only requirements for a job are part time, flexible hours and (hopefully one day) the ability to support myself. I'll find my fulfillment elsewhere, just as long as my job doesn't make me sicker.

    3 votes
  7. [6]
    patience_limited Link
    For anyone interested, this might be the next career leap.

    For anyone interested, this might be the next career leap.

    2 votes
    1. [4]
      eladnarra Link Parent
      Very cool - some folks with chronic illnesses "joke" that dealing with the medical system is like having a part- (or even full-) time job. There should be more people out there actually doing it...

      Very cool - some folks with chronic illnesses "joke" that dealing with the medical system is like having a part- (or even full-) time job. There should be more people out there actually doing it as a job, helping take the pressure off people who are sick. (Assuming I'm understanding the scope of patient advocacy!)

      2 votes
      1. [3]
        patience_limited Link Parent
        That's part of it - I don't want to assume you're in the U.S., but medical expenses here are both nightmarish and most punitive for those least able to pay. Unless you've got a skilled advocate...

        That's part of it - I don't want to assume you're in the U.S., but medical expenses here are both nightmarish and most punitive for those least able to pay. Unless you've got a skilled advocate who can manage your options for maximizing coverage, minimizing costs, and finding the most effective treatments with the right specialists (not necessarily just physicians).

        [Does it sound like I just want to plunge into enabling users of a different class of shitty systems? You betcha!]

        You've mentioned above that you're living with a serious, chronic condition - I'm sorry you have to deal with that, and hope you're not too stressed by the systems surrounding it.

        1 vote
        1. [2]
          eladnarra Link Parent
          Thanks - the stress of the system is very real, but the bizarre bonus of having a relatively poorly-understood condition is that there are periods where I don't have to deal with it because it...

          Thanks - the stress of the system is very real, but the bizarre bonus of having a relatively poorly-understood condition is that there are periods where I don't have to deal with it because it can't help much, haha.

          I'm in the US, and I'm definitely familiar with trying to optimize coverage/cost. I mostly manage to deal with it by making spreadsheets, but I can imagine it's very helpful to have someone help. (I once accidentally paid $500 extra for a couple MRIs because I didn't realize the location counted as hospital outpatient or something under my plan. Woops~)

          1 vote
          1. patience_limited Link Parent
            It's a conscious decision that I'd rather be on the side of people who need help, instead of those profiting from people who need help.

            It's a conscious decision that I'd rather be on the side of people who need help, instead of those profiting from people who need help.

            1 vote
  8. Papaya Link
    I'm currently a student and doing an internship in finance at a pretty big company. The people I work with are great, but they work crazy hours. When I come to work in the morning I see email in...

    I'm currently a student and doing an internship in finance at a pretty big company.
    The people I work with are great, but they work crazy hours. When I come to work in the morning I see email in my inbox that have been sent at 11 or 12pm. Thankfully, they never ask me to stay as long as they do.

    The problem is that I don't understand why they stay so long. It seems to me that this culture of working hard, not just to make the company go forward but also to bring meaning to your own life is toxic. Since everybody likes to work for long hours, they create tasks for each other to do. I question the value of these tasks.
    The dangerous thing is that it's not the bosses that press people to work long hours, but the employees who do it voluntarily. Instead of everyone finding ways to reduce the amount of work necessary to get the job done, they keep adding more useless tasks to fill up their day.
    Why would people agree to work so much for a company they have no stocks invested in ? Why can't they realize that if they put 70 hours a week working for themselves (creating a business, investing, etc.), it would be much more worthwhile ?
    The majority of my work is to create reports for the people upstairs to act like they know what their business is about. They want reports every month, every quarter and every year. We spend our time making budgets, then remaking them 2 months later. None of this work helps the company make more money or create better products. Yet, people don't seem to question their value. If they did, they would all leave and eventually the company would make the proper adjustments to skim the bullshit off.

    1 vote