The Virtue of Stress
In modern society there is one singular entity to which the common culture has cemented it’s all encompassing devotion: work, and hard work at that. There is no way to escape the cult of hard work or the societal impacts of it’s rhetoric. How hard you work and how burnt out you are have replaced meaningful personality traits.The brand of laziness is evoked as a mark of shame. The psychological impact of this culture has itself made a home in the popular conversation; stress, how to beat it, how to celebrate it, is a commercial market. Either way, stress is here to stay. But what is the purpose of this obsession, who does it benefit and to what end is it a necessary approach to work?
In 1905 German philosopher Max Weber wrote a theory that attributed the basis of western countries' approach to work ethic to the foundations laid by Protestant thought. Weber’s theory posits that Protestant, in particular, Calvinist values and approaches to discipline, frugality and virtue underpin the work ethic that drives modern economic systems. Weber draws attention in particular to the Calvinist belief that whatever you did in your life would not alter your fate, that you were born with God’s favour, and that to determine who was among God’s elect Calvinists would look to material signs. Good health, good looks and, essential to Weber’s theory, prosperity were considered indicators of God’s favour.
Weber suggests that this belief was motivating to its followers to work hard as the material gain that followed was evidence of Godliness. Supplementary to this belief came the sense that you could serve God by following your ‘Calling’ and your obligations to society could, and should be fulfilled through hard work in service of this calling. The legitimacy of the theology involved with Weber’s theory is up for debate, but importantly it highlights the framework of thinking that surrounds work under modern economic systems, namely the belief that hard-work is the determining factor in material success and that hard work is character building and morally good. This thinking allows the pursuit of money to be framed not as greed but rather as proof of moral fiber. The Protestant Work Ethic, as outlined, serves the development of modern economic systems as it encourages an all encompassing dedication to not just work, but hard work.
Placing a societal value on hard work should in theory motivate contribution to society and allow individuals to feel spiritually satisfied with the toll of everyday work. However, hard-work is not a quantifiable metric, there is no system to measure the value of effort. In its place, weariness becomes the indicator of effort: if you’re tired after a day’s work you must have worked hard. In the article ‘If you’re reading this, you probably don’t do hard work’ Jason Fried writes “Hard work is doing the work other people don't want to do” and “If you enjoy it most of the time, it’s probably not hard” reflecting a common theme that surrounds the perception of hard work. In this view, work can only be considered truly laborious when somebody else considers it too laborious for themselves, and hard work is defined primarily by the negative impacts upon the individual.
This is a fundamentally ascetic view, in which your suffering is the only meaningful indicator of how hard you have worked. And because hard work is virtuous, suffering becomes virtuous. Self imposed stress and the burden of a busy schedule become badges of honour, the fewer hours you slept last night the greater your bragging rights. If it's hurting you're working. Not only is suffering evidence of hard work, if you are not suffering you must not be working hard at all.
This cultural attitude fosters self-imposed suffering, you are encouraged to overextend yourself. Our sense of self and of value we put into society is prescribed by how miserable we are. If you fill a quota, if you complete your task list, your ability to finish it is proof positive that you have not worked hard enough. This approach makes satisfaction unattainable, it is an entirely self involved belief that puts the onus on how the work makes you feel not what value it contributes to society. In a less individualistic approach hard work could be viewed through the lens of its positive impact, by the value of the output rather than by the individual toll.
Suffering is encouraged even when it is a detriment to productivity and output. The conditions of lockdown have proven that a flexible approach to working, that autonomy over your own work and a comfortable working environment results in more efficient and more meaningful work, even when external factors are producing incredible burdens of psychological stress. As Joe Pinsker writes for the Atlantic “People who work a four-day week generally report that they’re healthier, happier, and less crunched for time; their employers report that they’re more efficient and more focused.” So why insist on the commute? On long days and longer weeks? On overbearing oversight and uncomfortable working conditions? These things serve only to affirm the suffering of the worker and their complete dedication to work. They allow the employer to exert total control over their employees' lives. You might be working better, and producing more, but if you don’t hate it, you must not be working hard enough.
Accusations of idleness and a lack of dedication are used to force the worker back into less than ideal working conditions. Ironically this dedication to discomfort forces large numbers of the population out of the workforce as it creates a space that is fundamentally hostile to those with disabilities or variant needs. These people want to work, but the system must maintain its hostility, so they can’t work, and in turn are met with accusations of laziness and social ostracisation for not working.
Supplementary to this culture is the belief that wealth and prosperity is directly linked to hard work, the harder you work, the more you earn, a belief that simply is not reflected in real world wages.Ironically it is the jobs that have the most tangible value to society, teachers, cleaners, nurses, carers etc that suffer lower wages. To avoid acknowledging this reality and addressing the imbalance of wages, the popular speech has re-framed low-paid work as unskilled. Again, a shallow logical fallacy in which the wage frames the way we see the value of the work, rather than the value of the work determining the wage. Referring to low-paid work as unskilled ideologically justifies low wages while strictly avoiding meaningful consideration of the value that work puts into society.
At the top of the ladder, the value of hard-work is internalised by the wealthy who evoke their own success as proof that all you need to do is work hard. This view refuses to take into account any structural inequality or social context that could create poverty, and ignores their own head starts, and institutional leg-ups. To acknowledge these would be a wound to the egos that have built around their belief that they are hard-working.
This attitude in turn produces and replicates structures of inequality: technocratic billionaires who have earned their wealth through exploitation and greed believe that their wealth is evidence of their innate hard work, their intelligence or responsibility and justifies their involvement in the political world, and justifies the circumvention of democracy. They believe that their wealth is proof of their individual ability to exercise social policy that interferes with the lives of the many.
Even articles and columns that decry this approach to work and preach self-care do so under the terms that looking after yourself will increase your output. The shame surrounding an absence of hard work (read suffering) means that every moment you are not working is spent thinking about working, inducing guilt that you are not productive every minute of the day. The solution to this, for some, is not to pull apart the very thinking that ties productivity to innate value or worthiness but to assure you that your restfulness is productivity: don't worry you can take breaks, it means you'll work harder. In this solution you are allowed time away from work but only because it contributes to your overall output, even your downtime is spent in service of productivity. Your personal fulfillment and satisfaction with life will always be secondary to your output.
A variation on the protestant work ethic is the Do What You Love (DWYL) approach. It would be difficult to be a stranger to this thinking in modern society, the ethos is simple: do what you love, and you never have to work a day in your life.The impact of this approach is fairly well surmised by Miya Tokimitsu “According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation but is an act of love”, an approach that fundamentally devalues work and justifies economic exploitation.
The promise of DWYL is that you will be liberated from the burden of an unfulfilling work life, and that rather than suffering forming the measure of hard work, the goal of work is personal fulfillment and ambition. The approach does not entirely counter the Protestant Work Ethic and embodies the Puritan conception of a ‘calling’, often the same thinking to work ethic is applied within DWYL with the added guilt that you should be enjoying it, because well, it’s what you love.
DWYL maintains an individualist approach to work, and as Tokmitsu writes “It’s real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace.” This approach refuses to acknowledge that work should be meaningfully compensated irregardless of the personal satisfaction it brings. Instead the often implicit assertion is that the worker should happily take on low or unpaid work and accept poor conditions and mistreatment because doing what you love is reward enough. Equally if you are doing what you love and not seeing any financial reward, you must just not love it enough.
A by-product of the Do What You Love subculture is the need to turn any hobby or self-fulfilling exercise into a profit making enterprise. The rise of the side hustle reaffirms the general sense that if it doesn’t make you money then it’s not worth doing. Everything in your life should be in service of profit. Again this thinking is used to justify inequality, and avoid meaningful compensation for labour. If you’re struggling to make ends meet because your job pays you poverty wages and the cost of living is rising disproportionately, there is no need to lobby for or move towards structural change; simply adopt a side hustle. If you’re not already making money, you simply must not be working hard enough.
The average worker does not commit the majority of their life, their health and attention to their employment because of a puritan sense of moral fibre through suffering. Although some might find solace in a sense that hard work is valuable in itself, most people work, and work hard because they need to pay their rent and their bills. It is not the Protestant Work Ethic that creates economic exploitation but the permeating culture surrounding hard work is used to justify, enforce and protect this system of exploitation.
The Protestant Work Ethic if anything shows that people can be self-motivated to work, that an obligation to society and sense of self-fulfillment is itself motivating to commit individuals and whole swaths of society to work - a culture that itself justifies meaningful wages or a universal basic income. And yet opponents of meaningful improvement to the average worker's life or well being cite low wages as proof themselves of the laziness of the individual - they are paid little so they must not be working hard, and yet they are working hard despite being paid little.
The Protestant Work Ethic is not an absolute truth, instead it describes the framework with which we view work. It encourages overworking and an all encompassing dedication to work. This Work Ethic is employed not only to avoid criticism of systemic injustice but to justify inequality and bolster the positions, and egos, of the privileged. Where this Work Ethic fails to protect the status-quo, and it’s meaningful application to self-fulfillment and societal obligation instead invites criticism of this structure, the popular dedication to this framework shifts and finds new thinking to justify an approach to work that puts modern economic systems as the central and absolute pillar of society.