There’s that infamous question interviewers often ask job candidates to try to catch them off guard: “Name one of your negative qualities and talk about how it’s played out in the workplace.” Some people end up stunned by the question and stammer their way through some off-the-cuff remark they hope isn’t too fatal. Others, however, heard about some version of this question on LinkedIn or from their best friend’s girlfriend’s cousin down at 31 Flavors and spent days strategizing an answer: “Crap – what could I say that might satisfy the committee but not make me look bad?” I’d venture to say a sizable percentage of these folks settle on “confessing” their overcommitment to their jobs and a minor penchant to overwork. After all, what could be more endearing, right? What could make us look better in an interview or even a social venue than to come across as being diligent, virtuous and important enough to work as much as possible? (So says the dominant culture anyway.) We pay a price for this virtue, however. A recent survey suggests that more than half of us are stressed out over our work situations. Research demonstrates that Americans are working more hours than they have in decades since national statistics were regularly gathered. Likewise, we’re apparently working more than our counterparts in the rest of the industrialized world. (There’s a bummer of a fact for you.) If Grok were a fly on the wall…
The problem is our work “ethic” might not be quite as effective as we think, and I don’t think Grok would be surprised here. Not only do overworked employees get sick more often, but they’re significantly more likely to experience depression (21% overworked employees versus 8%) and have a much higher injury hazard in the workplace (61% higher in workers who did overtime) (PDF). More than a third of people who overworked described themselves as being highly stressed (compared to 6% who did not overwork), stress, of course, having an annoying way of impeding cognitive functions like short-term memory, creative thinking and emotional regulation. Check out this fun infographic. Sound familiar?
Just this week, The Atlantic had an article on the issue of work hours, “To Work Better, Work Less” in which they took on the cult of overwork. While some people put in an unhealthy number of hours because they’re working multiple jobs to pay their basic bills, others are on more of an obsessive quest to over- and out-perform even when additional hours did nothing for their actual productivity. In fact, overworking costs companies exorbitantly each year in sick time, bigger health care costs, higher turnover and lost productivity (PDF). Regardless of the actual consequences, inherent to the culture of overworking, The Atlantic authors suggest, is the “moral” dimension we assign to diligence. Our hours become a symbol of how righteous we are, and we give up life balance, family closeness, social connection and even basic health in the interest of that belief.
The Primal perspective on all this, of course, is the observation that we’re incessant experts at contorting our own nature. In fact, we take great pride and maybe even our collective human identity in the fact that we, unlike “lower” beasts, can manipulate ourselves with sheer will and vision. But vision for what? Our grand schemes almost always come at a price, and much of the time it’s not worth the payment. In the case of overworking, I think the price is a continual devaluing of physical health, personal leisure, entertainment, travel, sleep, peace, hobbies, and – that traditional well of creative genius – boredom.
On the health front, sure, there’s the trend toward treadmill desks and other activity tools that keep us moving, thereby ameliorating the effects of sedentary hours. As much as I wholeheartedly support these inventions (and make sure people in my own company have access to them), I’m wary that the devices then can become justification to perpetuate the same mistaken push toward relentless human efficiency. I love a good tip here or hack there that allows me to get more done in less time or with less tedious effort, but the ultimate point is to be happier rather than more productive.
There’s a very real reason I included “Be Selfish” among the “Habits of Highly Effective Hunter-Gatherers.” Of course, our ancestors worked together and every individual needed to pull his/her weight. The fact is, anyone could be more or less voted off the island at any given time. That said, nobody benefited from a band of exhausted, sick, edgy and agitated people who didn’t have what it took to care for their children or get along. Surely, the “selfish” habit has been the most controversial of the list and the one about which I get the most feedback. Nonetheless, I think it’s one of the most important. Many of the rest follow from that concept and all it makes space for. The fact is, it can be genuinely hard to go against the cultural grain and claim sanity for yourself. Oftentimes, people whose motors go the most have little patience for those whose energy is more balanced. I’m personally suspect of people who won’t allow themselves to take a real vacation, for example and of those who won’t allow their employees to enjoy genuine downtime. I just don’t buy the truth they’ve hung their hat on, and neither does science.
I consider myself fortunate to be able to work in a field I love, doing work that offers me genuine meaning and connection. That said, my life isn’t my work, and I wouldn’t want it to be. Once upon a time, it was that way for me, and the anvils of deteriorating health and mental stress finally got through to my brain: this wasn’t working for me. I genuinely feel for those who are cobbling together money at multiple jobs, and it’s constantly an hours game. When we have the choice, however, we can and should do better for ourselves.
I think, on some level for many people in a position to choose, the pattern can become self-perpetuating. Some folks, for example, manage to leave a position with unreasonable demands only to go recreate the same situation for themselves elsewhere. It’s like they adapt in a dysfunctional way to certain level of chaos and grope for that homeostasis. It becomes an artificial set-point against which they gauge their lives. Rather than give themselves time for this awareness to come, they react against the void. Sometimes people don’t have enough patience with their own process to allow their personal motors to recalibrate, for their minds to envision and embrace all that they could do with that free time.
We all have this essential instinct that yearns to be applied for our own balanced well-being and personal thriving. Time is our ultimate Primal capital. We’re stewards of our own life energy. How would Grok have invested his, and what would he be thinking in your shoes right now?
Thanks for reading today, everyone. I hope you’ll share your thoughts and feedback. Have a great end to the week.