From work ethic to workaholicism

On John Calvin's five-hundredth birthday, Para Mullan traces how work has come to be seen as a Bad Thing.

Para Mullan

Topics Politics

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John Calvin, one of the fathers of the Protestant Reformation, was born 500 years ago this month. The doctrine of Calvinism promoted the spiritual value of hard work, an approach to the benefits of work that formed the basis of Max Weber’s seminal explanation for the drivers of modern society, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905).

Calvin argued that everyone should work because it was God’s will. He also thought everyone should be in a trade that brought the most income. He believed that a person’s future was pre-destined and that no one could know or alter their destiny. However, through working a Protestant could become a model citizen in the eyes of God. An application to work would be a sign of good grace; success at work was seen as a personal salvation. Protestants were expected to work all the hours God gave them to achieve this state of grace while the ascetic Protestant lifestyle meant that the wealth produced from work was not destined primarily for personal consumption. Hence, Weber pointed out, this wealth was used for investment, thereby helping to give birth to capitalism.

Even when the strict Calvinist connotations of the Protestant work ethic faded away, the idea of the ethical value of work lived on. Some, like Sir Thomas Carlyle, the nineteenth-century Scottish writer, took the meaning of the work ethic to an extreme. Carlyle made work itself into a type of religion (1). He elevated work to noble heights, where all work was seen as good and idleness was viewed as a vice. John Stuart Mill criticised Carlyle’s view and made the point that work should not be done for work’s sake but should have some meaning and useful outcome (2).

Today, very few people see work as having a transcendent purpose. The meaning of work, why people work and the extent to which one should work are debated widely within academia, at workplaces and in the media. Lately, the length of the working week has been a focus of these debates. We have come a long way from the early stages of capitalism, during which people genuinely worked long hours. As long ago as 1833, the British Factory Act was introduced to reduce the working hours of adults and children in the textile industry. Even then, the terms of the Act allowed children aged 13 to 18 to work up to 12 hours per day. A century ago, people in the UK on average worked more than 50 hours each week. By the end of the 1970s, the average working week was 35 hours (3).

Despite the long-term decline in average hours worked, a more negative assessment of work has come to the fore. In 1968, John Oates, a Baptist minister, coined the word ‘workaholic’, which many others later adopted as an allusion to the downside of being too devoted to work. Oates said that he realised that there was something wrong with the way he lived when his five-year-old son asked to make an appointment to see him. A few years later, Oates brought out his book, Confessions of a Workaholic (4).

Since the late 1970s, the sentiment that we work too hard and too much has become mainstream. The expression ‘work-life balance’ has emerged to make employees and employers aware that there needs to be a trade-off between how one spends time and energy between work and home. One consequence of this outlook has been legislation that allows employees to work flexibly and entitles them to more ‘family-friendly’ working conditions.

Academia has contributed to research on the perceived problems with excessive work. A Finnish-led study found that those working more than 55 hours a week had poorer mental skills than those who worked a standard working week (5). Professor Cary Cooper, an expert in workplace stress who is based at the University of Lancaster, agreed with the results of the study, adding that he believed it had long been established that consistently working long hours was bad for a person’s general health (6).

It is not just the long hours of work that have come under criticism. Modern work has been problematised in many other ways, too. Today, we are inundated with commentary and advice about workplace bullying, anger management and harassment at work. In his book, Toxic Emotions at Work, Peter Frost spells out how ‘pain’ is experienced by employees at work and offers ways of handling it. The tendency is to portray work and the social relations at work as inherently problematic.

In recent times, it is unusual to find anyone positively endorsing a work ethic. However, the impact of the recession has to some extent changed the tone of the debate. In an article for The Sunday Times entitled ‘We don’t know what work is – until we lose it’, India Knight noted how ‘work defines us and gives us self-respect in ways that are as important as our salary’ (7). In the Financial Times, Emma Jacobs recently wrote that people who have been made redundant experience a sense of loss. She described many individuals who, through losing their jobs, have also lost their social network and their sense of purpose in life (8). Deborah Keary, a director at the Society of Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Virginia, thought that because of the recession, ‘work-life balance policies fall into the category of “nice to have”’ (9).

Although such views are quite common in response to the recession, there are those who are using the current situation to encourage people to opt out of work and spend more time with their loved ones instead. Benjamin Hunnicutt, a professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa, bemoans that ‘we have been selling off our leisure over the last 30 years’ (10). He recognises that in the recession, employees might lose some wages, but says that they will now have more time for their family and community. Patrick Collinson, editor of Money Guardian, agrees with this approach and believes that an enforced four-day week due to the recession has the upside that it can mean more time for leisure (11).

Some companies are currently encouraging their staff to take unpaid holidays, claiming that this will allow employees to use their time to do the things they have always wanted to do or simply to spend more time at home. While this may be good advice for employees as an alternative to unemployment, there is something unpalatable about using the ‘work-life balance’ argument to justify what are essentially austerity measures: this is about telling people they should make the most out of having to make do with less.

The reality is that it is only those who have earned a considerable sum of money in the past who can afford to give up work for more leisure time. For a lucky few, the previous years of relative prosperity and high wages now allow them the option of ‘doing their own thing’ while jobs are scarce. For most of us, though, there is simply no choice but to work. With unemployment in the UK now at 2.4million, and projections of it possibly reaching three million in the next year, there will be even more people desperate to find work.

Work not only provides for the necessities of life such as food and shelter; without work, most of us would lose a significant part of our sense of purpose and our social connections. Moreover it is because of work that we can actually enjoy our leisure time. We need both aspects of our life – the opportunity to work and the chance to enjoy leisure. Both the public (work) and private (home) aspects of our existence are important for a fulfilled life.

In Calvin’s time, the Protestant work ethic made a positive case for work, but the negative connotations of work have come to the fore in the past three decades through the discussion of ‘work-life balance’. Now that the recession has made it more difficult to retain one’s job or find alternative employment, this focus on work provides us with an opportunity to rethink its value. One positive outcome of the tough economic conditions would be if they generate a more critical approach to those who believe work is inevitably bad for our health.

Para Mullan is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. She is convening a series of debates on work-related themes at the Battle of Ideas festival to be held on 31 October and 1 November 2009 at the Royal College of Art in London. For more details see here.

Previously on spiked

Para Mullan criticised the idea that bullying bosses make life hell. Anna Travis was unimpressed with the culture of ‘slow’. David Wainwright examined Britain’s sicknote culture. Or read more at spiked issue Therapy culture.

(1) Work, Lars Svendsen, 2008, Acumen Publishing Ltd

(2) Work, Lars Svendsen, 2008, Acumen Publishing Ltd

(3) Working hours in the UK, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development

(4) Work, Lars Svendsen, 2008, Acumen Publishing Ltd

(5) Long hours link to dementia risk, BBC News, 25th February 2009

(6) Long hours link to dementia risk, BBC News, 25th February 2009

(7) We don’t know what work is – until we lose it, The Sunday Times, 5 April 2009

(8) When losing a job means losing your identity, Emma Jacobs, Financial Times, 9 April 2009

(9) ‘As Cuts Loom, Will Working From Home Lead to a Lay off?’, Washington Post, 23 March 2009

(10) Recession offers potential for more work-life balance, Ottawa Citizen, 27 March 2009

(11) Work-life balance: The benefits of a four day week, Guardian, 28 March 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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