The hazards of workism

When work becomes religion

Alice Azzolini

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cover illustration by Johnny Cobalto

— Are you devoted to your job? For most, probably, yes. Work was once the way that we put food on our tables, but it has taken on a life of its own, becoming the reason for our existence, a source of our spirituality, and the focus of our lives.

We thought technology would help us work less, but we ended up working more than ever. Luckily for us, automation itself could end up being our way out of this cult we’ve unconsciously forced ourselves into. The way we work is changing — and not necessarily for the better: our society is more job-obsessed than ever, yet productivity is decreasing and disengagement is on the rise. Such phenomena are studied from different perspectives and under various labels (overwork and hustle culture are two among many). In February 2019, The Atlantic published "Workism Is Making Americans Miserable," igniting the debate even more. Derek Thompson compares our devotion to work to that of congregants worshipping a religion. Thompson says we’re devoting our lives to work with the blind faith that our actions will pay off. 

Most people worship something, but among the credos that have emerged in the aftermath of religious decline, Workism has the most fervent followers. This neologism coined by Thompson, is “the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.” This is work for work’s sake, but also for the sake of one’s identity, the source of our spirituality and the meaning of life: Homo laborans.

Not everyone is a believer. For most, work is a necessity. As Researcher and Sociologist at NYU and author of The Refusal of Work, David Frayne, says, “employment definitely does not coincide with everybody’s self-identity. Even though there is still a powerful expectation to identify with employment, I suspect that many people only feel like themselves after they clock out.” However, the numbers of Workism devotees are growing — mainly white males, who use money not to buy their way out of the office, but quite the opposite. Says Thompson: “The best-educated and highest-earning Americans, who can have whatever they want, have chosen the office for the same reason that devout Christians attend church on Sundays: It’s where they feel most themselves.” This religion is spreading like wildfire among millennials, as Erin Griffith writes in the New York Times, about the cult of work finding fertile ground within this generation’s members, who are “hungry for meaning” and trying all they can to meet their own high expectations and those of their parents. 

Is comparing our obsession with work to a religious faith too much of an exaggeration?: In Slate’s Why Are Millennials So Obsessed With How Much They Work? journalist Daniel Engber says that this analogy is “not based on facts,” and mentions a series of studies showing how our relationship with work has never changed. But Workism is not about how obsessed we are, or in which terms we should talk about overworking. Workism is about too much work, that is hurting us: There is no heaven waiting for us after exhausting 12-hours shifts. We’re not feeling happier by getting tasks done, in the words of Thompson, Workism, and “failing to deliver,” is making us miserable.

This religion, obsession, or whatever you want to call it, has in fact, done nothing but harm to us. Malissa Clark, associate professor of psychology and director of the Work and Family Experience Research Lab at the University of Georgia, has seen this in her studies on the scientific effects of workaholism — a “multi-dimensional construct“ composed of the inner pressure or compulsion to work,” a “cognitive obsession with work and negative emotions when you’re not working,” and “the behavioral component of spending more time working than is required of you.” According to Clark’s research, this obsession causes “greater job stress, greater burnout, but also physiological outcomes such as cardiovascular risk, dysregulated cortisol levels, and dysfunctional sleep.” Not to mention the impact on relationships, which “is huge,” she says. We are forgetting that work is a means, not an end, and are getting sick on the way there. One might hope, or think, that prospects are brighter on the business side: They’re not. Another major side effect of workism is a decrease in productivity: health issues can mean that a worker is not at their best when they are at work — because they’re always at work.

In a society where international human rights laws do not recognize the refusal to work or the right not to work, other than as the right to strike, is there a way out of this cult of Workism? Maybe. Some claim that we’re heading towards a few different approaches: A future with less or no work, or a future where work is deprioritized or more meaningful. The goal of those thinkers (such as anthropologist David Graeber, writer Nick Srnicek, and Frayne) is the same: they envision a society that has a healthy relationship with work, called post-work, or post-workism. Says Frayne: “If life in today’s job-centred societies often alternates between miserable labour and passive recuperation, the post-work writers try to envisage a more varied kind of life, where the boundaries between work and leisure are blurred, and people are free to do different things from one day to the next.” To make this happen, we’ll have to leverage the process of automation and seriously consider programs such as the Universal Basic Income (UBI) — regular cash payments made to people with minimal or no requirements for receiving the money — to unchain the link between survival and paid work, and completely rethink our idea of free time.

A life without work might seem impossible, but realizing we’re in a cult is the first way out of it. 

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