Why do we wear stress as a badge of honor?
As Americans, we feel successful when we’re busy. Busy-ness, being too swamped to breath, or pause, or eat lunch… it’s a badge of honor for us. If I can’t find 15 minutes of time in my day, DAMN my time must be valuable… I must be valuable.
In a Harvard Business Review experiment, they found that individuals described as having calendars that were “always full” were perceived as higher status than those who lead a “leisurely lifestyle.”
This is not a new idea. There are tons of articles and books that explore exactly how stressed out we are and exactly how bad that is for us. And there are more that make the case that we equate stress and success, and even more resources that propose different ways to cope… but what I want to know is why.
Why is it that your average European has Maternity/Paternity leave, gobs of vacation, and reachability boundaries (oh the boundaries!) while Americans are working some of the world’s most extreme hours… third only to Japan and South Korea… two cultures that have an actual word for overwork death (Karoshi and Gwarosa, respectively)!
I did a little digging and here’s what I came up with…
Whether we like it or not, this is a country founded on certain values. Think about the pilgrims, the puritans, the early colonizers of America*. They were people who believed that hard work would keep them alive, and allow them to have “freedom.” That forgoing comfort and ease in the name of creating a better future for their children, was a good deal. And many generations of immigrants followed. Choosing discomfort and hard work in exchange for some kind of opportunity they felt they couldn’t have back home.
Though time has passed, and America is no longer a place where you MUST work hard to survive, as a culture, we still really like the story of a person who has succeeded through putting their head down, and working hard every day. We love grit.
Socially Mobile Culture
Ostensibly, America has socio-economic mobility. Anyone can start as the child of a cab driver and wind up as a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Whether that is actually something available to every American or not, it’s a huge part of our cultural narrative and the “American Dream.” Unlike societies with caste systems or established nobility structures, we believe that your standing isn’t decided at birth. That it’s something an individual has the power to change.
So when you have a society that believes that hard work is the key to everything AND that you can change your status from toilet scrubber to President (hey, it could happen!) … you get fertile soil for our current situation.
Look at the 80's
Then look at the 80’s. A time when my parents were coming of age, when your neighbor could go work on wall street and become insanely, immeasurably rich… but also a time of increasing economic insecurity. When looking around, trying to make sense of what was going on, white collar Americans put their finger on hard work. Clearly the people who succeeded were hard workers, and the ones who were down-sized… lazy. So white-collar, college-educated work hours sky-rocketed … along with a heightened sense of economic insecurity for that same group.
Post 2008 America…
Now we find ourselves in another post-recession economy. The economic crisis that began in 2008 caused rises in unemployment, increased workload, staff reduction and wage reduction that were linked with increased rates in mood disorders, anxiety, depression, dysthymia and suicide. To make a sweeping generalization, an entire generation was laid off. Then rehired as contractors who had to work longer hours, for at-will contracts, more often than not, earning less at the end of the day … talk about income insecurity!
Then add the specter of social media… no longer are you only being compared to neighborhood gossip about Jimmy, now you have to contend with with a hyper-selected highlight reel of your every acquaintance’s best moments…
Where we find ourselves…
Then with all of this baggage we go to the workplace. We’ve been told we can get ahead through putting in the work. Grinding it out. We’re the ones who choose not to take vacation (the average US employee who receives paid vacation only actually takes 54% of the allotted time each year), to eat at our desks, to be reachable 24/7, to arrive early, stay late….
Is there hope?
I think so…
I see it in my practice where I talk to people who are at the far end of burnout. They’ve been through this ringer, and are coming out the other side of it changed.
Most of my clients are Millennials, a generation forged in this fire, and our values have been molded in reaction to it. The situation has become so extreme, that some of us are flat out rejecting the premise. We will not mortgage today’s happiness for a vague future promise. This is why we demand work/life balance, why we value love and family more than money, why we care about our happiness and fulfillment, why we prioritize self-improvement and value self-care.
But I don’t mean to suggest that it’s only Millennials who are making this shift — even in my practice, I see people from all generations using the same language of fulfillment, passion, balance and self-compassion. There’s a change that’s already in the air.
A final thought
Personally, I don’t think a change to our relationship with work can come from law or policy, I think it has to come from us individuals — each of us gaining the self-awareness to know what we need, the self-confidence and self-compassion to negotiate for more of it in a collaborative manner, and the self-respect to vote with our feet when employers won’t join us in making the workplace better.
*I want to humbly make a land acknowledgement. I’m writing this article on the traditional land of the Abenaki tribe past and present, and honor with gratitude the land itself and the people who have stewarded it through generations. While a land acknowledgment is not enough, it is an important social justice and decolonial practice that promotes indigenous visibility and a reminder that we are all settled on indigenous land. Let this acknowledgment be an opening for all of us to contemplate a way to join in decolonial and indigenous movements for sovereignty and self-determination.