Work, work ethic, work excess

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  • Work, work ethic, work excessGayle Porter

    School of Business, The State University of New Jersey, Rutgers, Camden,New Jersey, USA

    Keywords Workaholism, Work ethic, Philosophy

    Abstract Organizational change initiatives are successful only through the efforts of the people,so it is important to look beyond surface reactions and understand the deeper implications ofemployees visible work habits. By integrating work from several disciplines, this paper poses aseries of questions aimed at creating better awareness of differences in how and why people work.Historic tracking of beliefs about work in the USA is provided as an example of how a positivefoundation of strong work ethic can become the dysfunctional extreme of workaholism.


    From the viewpoint of social scientists, who assume that the best way to understand whatpeople want is to watch what they do, the easiest conclusion to be drawn . . . is thatAmericans are choosing hard work for themselves and their children because they want to.Forget a better balance. All the talk about making room for the rest of life about theimportance of family, friends, community, personal callings, and spiritual fulfillment is justsuperficial posturing in front of the cameras.

    Robert ReichMany of the organizational issues discussed as change efforts relate to increasedcompetition, drives for higher productivity, and the need for constant innovation.Regardless of the label put on the overall initiative, a successful change can happenonly through the efforts of the people in the organization. Understanding how peoplewill respond to change is critical to manage the process, and this understanding isfacilitated by a broader view of why people work the way they do.

    The trend in recent years is that every change increases demands on the people.Everyone is asked to do more with less, then even more with less again. Manyindividuals feel they are stretched to the limit; others seem to thrive under the pressure.It is easy to applaud the group that embraces the challenge, but much can be learnedfrom questioning the assumption that those individuals are always best for theorganization. Some people too readily accept an excessive workload, but how is excessdetermined? How much work is too much? The amount of work people do isinescapably tied to the meaning of work in their lives, and this meaning can changeover time and across circumstances. Only by clarifying the norms for an appropriateamount of work, is it possible to make the distinction between a healthy work ethic andworking to excess.

    This paper explores the reasons people might feel compelled towards excess work,with special attention to those who would choose that path even without high,externally imposed demands. These individuals can be detrimental to the workingenvironment and to attempted change efforts.

    Background incorporated into this paper is drawn from authors of history,sociology, psychology, counseling and other disciplines who have commented on work,work ethic and work excess. It is a sampling of perspectives around the topic, rather

    The Emerald Research Register for this journal is available at The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at



    Journal of Organizational ChangeManagementVol. 17 No. 5, 2004pp. 424-439q Emerald Group Publishing Limited0953-4814DOI 10.1108/09534810410554461

  • than an attempt to provide exhaustive coverage. Arranged around a series ofquestions, this discussion is intended to provoke thought and broaden the perspectiveemployed during management decision-making. The historical tracking focuses ontraditions of work and work ethic in the US. In todays global economy, implications ofthis discussion extend across national boundaries.

    Do people work more now?People seem to have a fondness for debating issues related to work ethic. Do we workmore now than at times in the past? If so, what might be causing the trend? Can any ofthese conclusions be automatically classified as a good thing or a bad thing? In TheOverworked American, Juliet Schor (1992) opened with an observation that the presenttrend, if continued, would soon lead to Americans spending as much time at their jobsas they did back in the 1920s. In spite of productivity gains, efforts by organized laborand technological advancement, contemporary society seems determined to maintainheavy time investment in paid work. Schor cites examples in the ancient societies ofGreece and Rome, as well as materially poor societies that we might refer to asprimitive, as having a much stronger inclination toward leisure time thancurrent-day working Westerners, particularly Americans. In spite of having so manymore comforts than those primitive cultures, most American workers cannot seem totake the time to enjoy what they have achieved.

    The meaning of work has varied across time and culture a curse, a calling, a socialobligation, a natural activity, a means to better life, or simply what we do becausewe have to. Following are a few reasons people work hard, and ways in which eachreason may lead to undesirable consequences to the individual, the organization, orboth.

    Working to have thingsOne of Shors conclusions and the focus of her subsequent book is that increasingwork is both fed by and contributes to growing consumerism. Endless innovation andincreasing standards have led people into an ever accelerating work/spend cycle. Morerecently, Joanne Ciulla (2000) has extended the criticism, referring to the betrayal ofwork as we currently experience it. Ciulla contends that work has become a primarysource of identity, in place of the fulfillment previously derived from family, friends,and religion. Both overwork and unemployment put stress on individuals and families,yet people continue to entrust their happiness to the marketplace and, therefore, aredependent on their employer to establish their status in the market and thus theirindividual well-being.

    Drawing from a deeper discussion of the meaning of life, one of Ciullas conclusionsis that people are struggling with too many choices. The prevailing belief that anindividual should be able to have everything brings growing frustration. In the midstof rapid change and mushrooming options, people defer to the readily availableguidance of marketers and employers one helps us spend our money, the other laysout rules for how we can get more of it to spend.

    Both Schor and Ciulla have shown patterns in societal explaining the role of work inpeoples lives. One troubling aspect is the recurring theme of each individual seen asonly a pass-through for the money that facilitates more production of things on which

    Work, workethic, work



  • to spend more money. As spending options and opportunities increase, the only way tokeep the system balanced is for the individual to generate more earnings. Theopportunity to work hard and achieve a better life is a foundation of capitalisticenterprise, but when the process itself becomes the predominant theme of life, peoplemay have reached an unhealthy extreme of that philosophy. The acceleratingwork/spend cycle is likely a factor of two outcomes that are growing in frequency:the breakdown of an individual whose work habits surpass the tolerance point, andpoor decisions by organizational leaders, sacrificing the firms long-term viability formore immediate market gain.

    Working to not be left behindThe opening quotation from Reich (2000) suggests that the observed behavior ofworking more and more could be taken as an indicator of what people want. Goingbeyond a simple desire for more material goods, Reich explains some of thecomplexities that contribute to this lifestyle. For one thing, people lack confidence thatthe earnings they have today will be there for them tomorrow. Without assurance of asteady income, theres a felt need to get as much as possible now, just in case. Jobs seemmore tentative today in the knowledge-based economy, as compared to the past whenone might enjoy security based on rank or seniority. Still, the knowledge-based jobs arecurrently where the big money is, so people opt for higher pay with the accompanyinginsecurities.

    Reich (2000, p. 224) also refers to the over-abundance of choices people have today,including consumers ever-increasing standards and ability to switch easily from oneproduct supplier to another as each innovation attracts their attention. This creates avolatile marketplace and continuous demand for companies to update their offeringsfor every whim of the consumer. In turn, each employee trying to excel in thecompeting organizations must be ever ready to put in the extra effort it takes to meetboth internal and external competition. More uncertainty, more competition. Morecompensation for those who do well but, for the less successful, concerns about theacceptability of a more modest standard of living including the possibility of having towork just as hard in a lower status endeavor. According to Reich, you dont have toscale the wall, but the consequence of not doing so is harsher; and the reward for doingso is sweeter, than you have ever encountered before. He states that both theharshness and the sweetness are intensifying, and that disparity of outcomes is largerin America than other countries.

    Here we begin to get a larger picture of the pressures to devote more time towork. The driving desire to acquire things is exacerbated by the social costs of nothaving them and the lack of a perceived acceptable middle ground. DSouza (2000)further explains that we evaluate our situation in relative terms, comparing to thosearound us. Being surrounded by affluence allows vulnerability to feelings ofinferiority or humiliation, although the specific life circumstances could beconsidered adequate by many standards. The outcomes of work, thus, becomesour comparative scorecard. While inequity can spur individual effort and innovation(Shlaes, 2002), it can also lead to depression and anxiety (Prowse, 2002), outcomesthat do not support organizational efficiency. The second possibility may be morelikely than the first, especially in situations where employees already feel they areworking to their limit.



  • Working to confirm self worthWhile work outcomes supply a scorecard to compare with others, they also serve as abasis for self judgment. Work has become such an integral part of personal identitythat loss of work becomes loss of personhood. Success at work is compared againstpersonal ambitions, which often have foundation in social expectations. Admiration forindividual accomplishment also takes its toll in self-criticism when outcomes are lessthan full success. If you believe the American Horatio Alger credo of pulling oneselfup the ladder and then you fall off, it must be because you misstepped (Rayman, 2001,p. xvi).

    Most workers today have internalized these perceptions and fears, so that littleprompting is needed for them to feel pressurized to work hard. For others, day-to-daymessages in the workplace clearly emphasize that more is required today than wasyesterday. In reality, the company can only stay in business if each employee createssome product or service that exceeds the cost of employing that individual. Whetheryou think of this in terms of Marxs exploitation of the worker, or the morecontemporary idea of value added at each process step, there must be residue worth ofsome type after the employee is compensated. A troublesome question is, how muchadded worth is a reasonable margin?

    Critics point to the growing disparity between rich and poor as an indication thatsome of this push to get more out of each person is based on greed of those in controlof resources. In an economic system that only recognizes value in those things thatare easily marketed, many believe corporate decision-makers put increasing profitsbefore concern for people (Roddick, 2001). Stories abound of bosses who think timeaway from work for family and personal matters is a sign the employee lackscommitment, is weak, or simply cannot make the grade. One manager continued a20-minute phone conversation with his employee on the verge of giving birth to herchild (Wright and Smye, 1996). Her alerts at the beginning of each contraction mayhave interrupted the tempo of the conversation a little but not enough to conclude thecall. Would the margin of profitability have been significantly affected by ending thatphone call?

    People tell these stories and complain about job demands. Still, they feel unwillingor unable to refuse the intrusion of work into time and situations that should bepersonal. This may encourage sneaking attention to personal activities during worktime ( Jackson, 1999), due to perceived lack of any other options. This also initiates aself-reinforcing cycle individuals working more hours because organizationalsuccess supplies a sense of worth, then expending extra energy to surreptitiously offsetthe sacrifice of personal time, resulting in organizations pushing for higherproductivity by rewarding those willing to spend more time at work.

    Working to use the toolsTechnology has added another bite to the assault. Somehow the availability of newtools has shifted into a belief that anything less than full utilization is wasteful. Nowthe technology seems to be governing how and when people work. What Fraser (2001)refers to as workplace gadgets are showing up in homes everywhere. By 1998, mosthouseholds had cellular phones (about two-thirds), with pagers and fax machines alsocommon. Along with personal computers at home, laptop computers and nowhandheld devices increase the expectation for constant contact through e-mail.

    Work, workethic, work



  • Hotels, cafes, and even hospital rooms are now wired to keep people connectedelectronically while away from the workplace. Wireless technology enables evenbroader access with less dependency on time and place.

    Farson (1996) used the term iatrogenic to describe the impact of technology on ourlives. Borrowed from medical terminology, iatrogenic refers to physician-inducedcomplications from surgery or other medical treatment. Similarly, technology bringsthe potential to improve lives but also carries ill effects in further linking people to theirwork, unless they take action to limit the intrusion. The ability to work at any timeand place may be too easily confused with need or desirability to do so.

    Working to provide for childrenMany people claim that their hard work is to provide a better life for their children, buteach generation seems to be critical of the next for not wanting to work as hard.Reading excerpts from paper by Howard and Wilson (1982), MBA students tried toidentify the correct 20-year differential between the referenced management recruits.The description of the later group contained comments, for example, about them beingless inclined to loyalty, wanting a lifestyle that is...