To hell with your “work ethic”


We Americans sure do love our stories of the “good work ethic,” don’t we? It’s something we’re supposed to instill in our kids, practically from birth.

It all fits in so well with its twin belief, that of the “self-made” man or woman. Life becomes a game of winners and losers and which category you fall into depends on your work ethic.

According to these beliefs, those who are well-off believe themselves inherently superior to people with lower incomes, because they believe they got and deserved all their wealth simply because they worked harder.

There are so many problems with this way of thinking, not least of which is the idea that some humans are worth more than others. Simply being human is hard enough for all of us, regardless of how much we work.

My late husband had the epitome of a good work ethic. He always gave more than 100 percent of himself to his employers. After his passing from cancer, his boss told me that my husband did more work while sick than most healthy people did.

It all started at a very young age. His mom had a large garden that she maintained and he spent many long days every summer working on the garden.

He especially remembered the busy days of harvest time, when they would spend hours after she got home from work, picking beans and corn and tomatoes, then blanching and freezing and canning them.

He also helped his parents with endless home improvement projects, helping to lay tile, hang drywall, and paint rooms. His own bedroom was in the attic and wasn’t even finished before he turned 18.

What he didn’t remember was having much free time just to be a kid. When he got home from school, he had chores and homework to do, before the nightly rounds of gardening or home improvement. He didn’t have too much time for play. When his adulthood was just more of the same, well, it was no surprise.

I have my own version of the “good work ethic,” which means that I absolutely cannot relax. When I’m watching TV, I’m also writing articles. I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t read a full book in years. Right now, I also have laundry tumbling in the dryer, waiting for me to fold it.

I always compared myself to my husband, who worked more than I did. He didn’t set up that comparison; it was something I did to myself.

It didn’t matter whether I was in school full-time plus freelancing full-time or working a full-time job and still freelancing on the side. If I didn’t have enough freelance work, I spent my time trying to get more. It just never felt like I was doing enough.

Every year on my birthday, my daughter makes me a card, telling me that she sees how hard I’m working and she just wants me to relax a little and take some time for myself. I still haven’t been able to do it, despite the fact that she’s given me some variation of the same card for years now.

I’m actually working with my therapist on how to take time for “self-care.” Contrary to popular belief, that doesn’t mean bubble baths and shopping. Instead, it means healthy nutrition, drinking enough water, getting exercise, and participating in leisure activities that I enjoy.

That last one is the one that always gets the short shrift; I genuinely don’t know what I enjoy anymore. Furthermore, I don’t really believe I deserve to do it; there’s so much more I could be doing instead to try to make money. But the question always is: how much is enough? When will I finally feel like I deserve to relax?

Obviously, a good work ethic is a recipe for burnout. It allows no time to build healthy families, be creative, make music or art, or even just to be. The only time you can get off the hamster wheel is to sleep. (And we wonder why sleep medicines are among the top prescriptions written every year.)

It reduces all of your efforts to the commercial output you produce. But if you look around at our culture, there are a whole lot of people who are suffering from burnout, and it’s only getting more so, as our jobs demand more of our time.

My husband almost never took vacations. For many years, he held jobs that didn’t offer paid vacation time. Once he did get vacation time, he scheduled his surgeries to take place during his “vacation.” We took maybe 5 vacations total in our 28 years together, all but one of which was to visit family. There were so many places we wanted to visit and never got the chance.

There was the unspoken assumption that there would be time for real vacations once he was retired but he never got there. That makes me sad, not just that he didn’t get there, but because so much of his life was all about work.

We shouldn’t have to wait for some outdated version of retirement that rarely exists anymore to allow ourselves to enjoy our lives. We are not machines; we do not live just to work and die.

There’s also the fact that it makes hard workers who succeed have less sympathy for people who have less money. A study showed that people who have more money are (in general) less generous compared to people with very little money.

You can’t simultaneously remain focused on acquiring as much money as possible for retirement while also being generous to those who are currently in need. My husband and I never really focused on retirement, choosing to help people instead. That may be a detriment to me when I get older but I’m likely going to continue doing things the same way.

My husband had a very good work ethic, yes, but he increasingly thought that was a bad thing as he saw his life being shortened by cancer. In the last months of his life, my oldest daughter had a very high-pressure job with a toxic boss and was thinking of trying to “tough it out,” as she thought my husband would have.

Instead, he advised her to quit and not look back. He said that the model he had given wasn’t one that she should follow and if he ever got to retire, he’d spend most of his retirement years in therapy.

I’m certainly not saying that we should all quit our jobs or put in the minimum possible effort. There’s something to be said about being a hard worker and establishing such a reputation for yourself.

But we do desperately need to find balance again. Relaxation is not a dirty word. We need the time to create and dream and take care of ourselves. We need time to create and nurture healthy family relationships.

Not to mention that when you spend your whole life with a good work ethic, you don’t have enough time to pay attention to your health, because you have to get back up on the treadmill again. When you don’t pay attention to your health, you may not have much of a future.

I hope that the jobs of the future will allow people to have more balance in their lives but I’m not hopeful. Yet we have to strive for it. We can’t allow the time to build healthy families and the pursuits of art and writing and music to be lost in the endless chasing for another dollar. Humanity has so much more potential than this.

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