You probably work too much – but won’t change a thing

Andreas Nilsson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Work is an essential part of everyday life – most people aren’t born in rich families and are dependent on a form of labour in order to make a living. Some even find inspiration and dedication through their work or find integration into a social group, others escape boredom and seek challenge, which their private life doesn’t provide. However, the social and financial value different societies all over the world add to labour creates an interesting schism – money and social appreciation gained through work seem to lead to happiness, while a growing number of studies suggest that this notion is far from reality and even leads to disadvantages for communities.

When working ethics get out of hand

It is great when a person finds his or her true calling, earning money with an activity which he or she finds enjoyable. Nevertheless, in the last two decades it seems that we have lifted the importance of work to a level which appears to be completely counterintuitive. While labour unions and international associations were pleading in the 20th century for fair labour standards and regulated working hours in order to avoid exploitation, it is a global phenomenon that especially white-collar workers voluntarily spend more and more time in their offices.

Americans, for instance, use on average only half of their paid vacation days, while more than two thirds of Chinese employers haven’t taken paid vacation at all over the last three years, although they are legally entitled to do so. While there are several reasons in different countries why workers decide to stick to strict working ethics, a study by the GfK Public Affairs and Corporate Communications and the U.S. Travel Association suggests that a post-recession “work martyr complex” can be observed among employees in the US. When asked for the reasons for their decision to skip vacation, the participants of the study indicated the following reasons:

  • 40% fear to return to an unbearable amount of accumulated work
  • 35% believe that no one else could do they work
  • 30% said they cannot afford to take time off
  • 28% fear of getting behind
  • 19% hope to get a promotion by sticking to their desks
  • 17% are afraid of losing their job
  • 13% want to outperform their colleagues

Additionally, the assumptions of the workers are being reinforced by the competitive company culture and the lack of encouragement by the management to take time off. Workers who aren’t taking vacations do not only receive complaints from their personal environment, but miss the chance to regenerate creativity and concentration and risk their own health. The German health insurance DAK reported in 2014 that nearly two million employees were excused from work due to stress-related symptoms. Nearly every fifth worker receiving a medical certificate suffers from psychological issues – flexible work lives only add stress to everyday life. If you work from home and are in charge of your own working hours, it eventually become more challenging to identify real breaks, since private and professional life are interlocked.

Money and power change people

While the results of the reasons why employees decide not to take paid vacation might be surprising, the incentive to work stems from the simple necessity to provide financial security – the bills gotta be paid, right? Money is what covers the basic needs like food and shelter – some might argue as well internet. Moreover, it is common sense that money is strongly connected to power – an abstract and vague, yet clear complex of social strength and influence. However, it’s a fact that in many societies the virtues of competence and efficiency are being highly respected and cultivate a positive social status for professionally successful people. Unsurprisingly, money and power are consequently key incentives to the question of why people work hard – especially as ambitiously as top-managers and other high-achievers. Taking a closer look at the effects money has on people, a variety of studies reveals the impact on the brain and the behaviour:

Social psychologist Paul Piff examined the complex of power status and money and concluded that these aspects reinforce greed, lead to a lower inhibition level to lie and cause people to cheat more ruthlessly and self-righteously. The research article “People With Power are Better Liars” (Columbia University) supports the observation that powerful people experience less negative emotions when lying – usually, lying is a cognitively and emotionally demanding and negative process. Additionally, richer people donate less (44%) than people with an average or low income and their ability to feel compassion and empathy towards other people is reduced as well as their respect of morals and laws. Furthermore, Piff adds to his analysis that it might be the combination of these aspects which leads to the pattern of “the rich are becoming richer – the poor are becoming poorer”. Once you had a taste of the rush money can provide, people are strongly focussed on gaining more money and more power.

Speaking of a rush – money has a similar effect as drugs on the brain. In the research article “The Symbolic Power of Money”, the Chinese and US-American authors state that money leads to a greater feeling of strength, the ease of physical pain and can substitute the effects of actual social acceptance. Even the simple act of counting money already shows clear results. Frankly, money alleviates pain in a similar way as the presence of a close person – or as researcher Xinyue Zhou puts it: „We think money works as a substitute for another pain buffer — love.“

Is this real happiness?         

So far so good – money and power seem to have a positive effect on a person, if you’re the one gaining it. You might become mean, but if you’re on the winning side, you probably couldn’t care less. But there’s a catch: the drug analogy functions well when speaking of happiness – money might blur your mind and make you believe that you are strong and superior, however, this isn’t real happiness. Picture the effects of alcohol consumption: while the buzz might feel fun, it doesn’t equal sincere happiness. The same applies to money.

Harvard’s Grant Study has shown after 75 years of gathering data that the quality of good and stable relationships (this includes parents, family, friends and romantic partners) is key to happiness and a study of Rotterdam University underpins the importance of community sense: people who are in long-term relationships, go out for dinners, have close friendships and are engaged into politics in any way are among the happiest. Bottom line: it is the social dimension of our lives which is crucial to life satisfaction. There is no clear evidence that money increases life satisfaction, on the condition that a person has enough money to cover their basic needs.

The sweet spot – turning power into something useful

If happiness isn’t what can be achieved through hard work, how can a real benefit be created out of power and money? Piff suggests to remind rich and powerful people of empathy and compassion. When reminded, their behaviour changed again – they acted as compassionate as their poorer peers did. It is a matter of the context, too – in the US philanthropy among the richest is a common pattern. Being engaged in a social cause might cause a win-win-effect. Rich people could experience genuine happiness – as the studies of Harvard and the University of Rotterdam suggested – while the environment could benefit directly from the combination of power and goodwill instead of suffering of the outcomes of greed and egoism.

Additionally, author Dan Pink explains in his book “Drive” the key factors to satisfaction in work life – autonomy, mastery (becoming better in something that matters) and purpose. It seems that adding a social component to the outcomes of work not only leads to a higher satisfaction, but serves the gains of others, too. These three aspects build a synergy effect – the drive, which lets us work as if we were in a magical flow. Stress-related symptoms are less likely to occur in this particular state, so perhaps the challenge isn’t to work less, but to work for the right purpose and to actually acknowledge the own motivation – why do you work so much?

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