Balancing Act: Part 1 – The Influence of Belief

Bethany: So you’re saying that having beliefs is a bad thing?

Rufus: I just think it’s better to have an idea. You can change an idea; changing a belief is trickier.

Dogma, 1999

I find humans fascinating. Especially how humans function collectively. Of how our brains and our culture evolved, leading to us operate in some very specific ways. Creating social constructs to make sense of the world. Taking certain things for granted. Things that are not inherently true in any way. We make them true, via our beliefs.

Take, for example, the diamond. Diamonds have some practical purposes. They make good drill bits. The hardness is an advantage. But the most notable aspect of a diamond? It’s shiny. It’s shiny and pretty, and we like it. So we assign value. Diamonds are pretty, we like them, hence they are expensive.

There’s no universal law about diamonds. It’s not gravity. If you’re starving in the wilderness, you’d walk past a pile of diamonds to pick up a banana. And if we all collectively decided tomorrow that we didn’t like diamonds, they’d be worth nothing.

Why am I talking about this?

Because often we are so enmeshed in what we believe, we don’t stop to think about why we believe it.

Ok, let's see what I have on the schedule for today...

When I talk about current workplace culture in America, it’s important to acknowledge that, despite the many different cultures that are a part of this country, most of the things we believe are essential aspects of a professional environment come from one particular culture. And that would be white, male, and Protestant.

The male and white has received a fair amount of attention of late, but one aspect that is often mentioned less frequently is the Protestant influence. It’s less overt, but the influence is still there. It’s about that good old fashioned Protestant work ethic, the idea of personal and moral achievement through hard work and thrift that was a core belief in many of the European immigrants who came to the United States. The concept of the American dream itself is a narrative about Protestant work ethic. Come here, work hard, and get what you deserve.

( I would be remiss in not mentioning that this concept completely ignores the intersections of poverty, race, class, disability, etc, that actually impact someone’s ability to “live the dream”. But we’ll get into that at another time.)

So as American workplace culture was evolving, we had a dominant culture (white European) with a dominant belief (a “good” person works hard) that became ingrained into the very fabric of professional life.

But as harmless, or even positive as it might seem, there’s a vast danger in a core belief like this one. Because what seems like encouragement of putting in time and effort on one hand, can turn into something toxic on the other.

Shoot, guess I have to skip lunch to make this deadline.

Now, to be utterly clear, I’m not saying a belief in working hard is a bad thing. But we have to look at the context of how we use this belief. Having a belief that lifts us up is good. Having a belief that pushes others down is not.

Let’s break down a few of the issues here.

Item one: If you connect working hard with morality, it makes it extremely easy to judge others. We see this all the time with the conversations around people receiving benefits from the government. People with privilege ignore the systemic causes of poverty and assign blame to the individuals. It’s the “ pull yourself up with your bootstraps” viewpoint.

It’s a perspective that completely ignores that 1) because of inequitable systems, people in poverty have to work so much harder than everyone else to achieve even small things, and 2) that not being able to work, either due to disability or circumstance, is not a sign of moral failing.

Item two: Because this mindset conflates success and being a hard worker, people who have achieved success are granted the assumption that they have earned it. This kind of narrative is frequently pushed by those in power, because they get to feed into the bias that they deserve what they have. It again completely ignores the privilege that benefits people within the dominant culture. It’s why you have CEOs with multi-million dollar salaries balking at increasing the minimum wage for their workers. They get to believe they’ve earned those millions, while their workers just need to try harder if they want to succeed. It’s bullshit, but many people still buy it.

Item three: It requires an extremely narrow perspective on what working hard actually means. If I use hard work as a metric to determine if you are a good person, or a good employee, I need to be able to see it. But I can’t see into your mind or measure your effort of thought. So instead I use assumptions, or shortcuts, to make judgements. And like most assumptions, they are very flawed.

And that’s one of the saddest aspects of this obsession with working hard. So much of it isn’t about actual productivity, but like so many things in our society, about the appearance of what we do.

It rewards those who sit at their desks all day and penalizes those who take breaks. It praises people for skipping family meals to spend yet another night in the office. It encourages workers to compete in who has done the most overtime that week. It punishes women for taking maternity leave and scares men from taking paternity time. In the end, it hurts us all.

No problem, boss, of course I can stay late!

Let’s talk work weeks.

Initially, the arise of the forty hour work week was a good thing. The further back in history you go, the worse workers have been treated. During the Industrial Revolution, abuses were rampant. Thanks to unions, conditions improved over time, and gradually the eight hour work day became standard. Another big change happened when Henry Ford discovered that his employees were more productive working a forty hour week than a forty-eight hour week, and in 1940 it became a part of U.S. law.

At this point in time, there are numerous studies on the impacts of working over forty hours. And the results, like these from the CDC, show that when analyzing the increase in illnesses and mistakes, as well as the decrease in productivity, there is zero benefit to putting in the extra time.

In fact, recently the 30 hour work week has begun to get more attention. Some businesses have started to test it, and again, are finding that the increase in productivity, creativity, and health of their employees are worth it. There’s a big gain in working less.

Unfortunately, these companies are the exception.

So if it has the potential to be profitable, why do so many organizations resist changing their culture?

Because it requires questioning core beliefs. And a belief is hard to change.

Next week: How this impacts work/life balance.

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