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5-a-Week: Why do we work so hard?


This week’s 5 key points come from a recent article in the Washington Post by Brigid Schult who questions our work ethic.  Whilst her article is based on the American attitude to working, she also points to other advanced nations’ cultures with a similar approach; the Japanese even have a word for dying at your desk, ‘Karoshi’, meaning Death from Overwork.  Sobering stuff.  Can we draw a comparison with the UK?  Some would certainly say yes.

Whilst Schult is not suggesting we shouldn’t work hard, she highlights the negative effects of working too hard, of not allowing adequate time to enjoy the rewards of our work, or just enjoy life (difficult enough for most of us in these current times). Interestingly, she points out that it’s during the ‘down times’, in the shower, enjoying a walk or just relaxing, that those moments of inspiration come (these align with our Circadian and Ultradian cycles, take ‘power-napping’ as recognition of this phenomena).  She cites Bill Gates and the Wright Brothers as examples.  Gates has ‘Think Weeks’, the Wright Brothers came up with their flying machine concept whilst on a leisurely camping trip.

So why do we work so hard?  Schult points to the “work-and-spend” cycle – described as a time-sucking treadmill of more spending, more stuff, more debt, stagnant wages, higher costs and more work to pay for it all.

So what of the negatives? Here are 5 reasons to change the pace:

1. Sick. Americans spend almost twice as much on health care per person than people in other advanced nations – paying out of pocket, while other countries pool resources — and we suffer more injuries and illnesses and die younger, the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine report.

2. Stressed. America may be the richest nation on earth, but the World Health Organization has found it is also the most anxious, with nearly one-third of all Americans likely to suffer from anxiety in their lifetime.

3. Stupid. In a study of brains using functional MRI technology, scientists at the Yale Stress Center have found that subjects who both lived through stressful events (and who hasn’t?) and felt stressed out had smaller brain volumes than less-stressed subjects in critical areas of the prefrontal cortex that govern thinking, planning, decision making, learning and remembering.

4. Off Balance. The United States ranks toward the bottom of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s work-life balance scale. And a growing number of Americans report feeling rushed, pressed for time, that they don’t spend enough time with their families, and at the end of the day, haven’t gotten to all the things they needed to do, much less wanted to do.

5. Disengaged. Gallup estimates that 70 percent of all workers are disengaged from their jobs, costing between $450-$550 billion each year in productivity. And although American productivity looks mighty in international comparisons, slice that productivity by hours worked, and the United States falls several rungs – in some years even - below those countries whose workers stroll home in the evening after a shorter, more intense work day, stop by a café and take the entire month of August off.

We would do well to look at other European nations’ work cultures and learn from their models – more sustainable, more job satisfaction, more healthy.  We work to live, not the other way around.

Schult’s full article can be viewed here:

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