Wednesday, March 01, 2020


It's easy to assume people only work excessive hours because they have to: that grasping management or greedy bosses force them into it. Even workaholism can be defined as a sickness that drives people to self-destructive behavior.

But what if many people work themselves nearly to death because they choose to do so—freely and without external compulsion?

Here's how the process could work.

In times of uncertainty (like now), our imaginary employee decides the best insurance against losing his or her job is to become indispensable: to stand out from the crowd as the most effective and admirable worker. It's not a very radical thought, is it? In many ways, it's obvious. And it also carries the additional benefit that it may very likely lead to career advancement—an equally desirable goal.

Naturally, our employee's colleagues have the same thought. But being outstanding is a "zero-sum" game. There can only be one top person. That sets up a chronic competitive state. People strive to out-do one another in order to stand out. They don't need to be motivated to do this by external means. They're doing it because they want to; because it seems the best way to avoid nasty consequences, like job loss. Of course, organizations welcome such attitudes and go along with the assumption; even build it into their policies. Jack Welch's famous mantra of firing the bottom 10% of performers each year is only one example of ways this might work.

But how do you prove you're "outstanding?" One way is by results—and this probably explains why there has been a rash of managers going along with (or initiating) the idea that the ends (better results) justify almost any means, however ethically or financially dubious. But results are tough to obtain and uncertain even then. Much can happen outside the employee's control.

That's where hard work for long hours offers a more controllable alternative. If everyone work 35 hours a week, but you work 40, you'll likely establish a reputation as a hard worker. And it's so easy to do. Of course, the others quickly catch on. In the past, especially in highly cohesive, unionized workplaces, such "rate-busting" was quickly brought back into line. But today's workplaces are filled with people who think of themselves (and are treated) as separate individuals, and union power is a shadow of what it once was. In such an environment, that chronic competitive state prevails. Now everyone work 40 hours and you must work 50 to stand out. And so it continues, until the average work week is 60 hours or more and individuals are working 70 or 80 hours or longer to prove their outstanding devotion to duty.

Our whole workaholic system could be driven by these two forces:
  • A pervasive and chronic sense of individual competition, because each employee feels he or she is alone and can best escape job loss (or win advancement, or both) by proving to be of greater worth than the rest.

  • A general atmosphere of threat and staff reductions, produced by the corporate assumption that employees are costs to be minimized or eliminated.
Productivity can be driven upwards by doing more with less (the general assumption) or by doing much more with either the same or greater resources. What matters is only that any increase in resources is less than the resulting increase in output. Productivity and profit increases can also result while output remains the same (or even falls), so long as resources used fall faster. That's what we are seeing most today. Many corporations are increasing productivity (and profits) while overall output remains pretty much the same. They aren't doing more with less; they're doing the same (sometimes even a bit less), with ever more radically reduced resources. They may use fancy jargon to camouflage what they're doing (like "focusing on core business"), but that's what it amounts to.

In this scenario, the constant emphasis on driving costs down (as the simplest way to increase profits) creates the necessary pervading sense of threat to employment. The result is increased individual competition to stay out of the danger-zone of the next round of layoffs. Our culture of valuing hard work as an end in itself then kicks in, ensuring the most obvious way to "win" over your colleagues (so they're given pink slips, not you) is to demonstrate you work harder (and longer hours) than they do.

If my reasoning is anywhere near the truth, people will go on desiring a more civilized way of working, while practicing workaholism as a purely defensive strategy. Only when everyone meets the law of diminishing returns will something have to give.

Are we there yet?

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Steve S. said...

If my workplace is any indication (healthcare), we're close.

That said, my manager (not my immediate supervisor) has been at least listening to my preaching this sort of stuff to him. Keep up your good work - the fact that someone has the cajones to say it outfront is enough to inspire!

5:08 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Steve.

The more people like you out there spreading the word, the sooner we'll have a critical mass of people listening -- and things will start to change.

8:01 PM  
Richard said...

After working in the technology boom/bust and for managers who “punish” you for taking vacation time, I have curtailed my overwork habits, until recently.

6 months ago the workload on my team was reasonable to 40 or so hours. As new projects are brought on and hiring decisions are being delayed we are slowly approaching the 50 hour week with on call support to go along with it.

I compare my situation to putting a frog in boiling water; if you throw a frog in boiling water it jumps out but if you put him in cold water and slowly raise the temperature the frog will eventually boil to death.

What advice can you give to prevent from being sucked into that life again?

9:24 PM  

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