Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Origins of the Cult of Overwork

Steven M. Johnson solves the Amazon office bathroom problem (Treehugger)
I don't often repost stories I've posted previously, but considering the attention being paid to the transformation of the workplace into the digital dystopian nightmare of constant stress and sleep deprivation (both of which are used in cult indoctrination BTW), I thought it important to revisit these.

This article related where the idea that you must be obsessively passionate about your work to the point of forgoing eating and sleeping came from - the autistic employees of early Silicon Valley. So really, that ideal came out of that industry, and then came to be popularized to the wider workplace by the business/management cult literature. How convenient that "passionate" people will work themselves to death without being paid:
How did this knowledge, which was so deeply embedded in three generations of American business management that it was utterly taken for granted, come to be so lost to us now? There are probably several answers to that, but there are three factors in particular that stand out.

The first is the emergence of Silicon Valley as an economic powerhouse in the late 1970s. Since WWII, the valley had attracted a unique breed of worker — scientists and technologists who carried with them a singular passion for research and innovation. Asperger’s Syndrome wasn’t named and identified until 1994, but by the 1950s, the defense industries in California’s Santa Clara Valley were already drawing in brilliant young men and women who fit the profile: single-minded, socially awkward, emotionally detached and blessed (or cursed) with a singular, unique, laser-like focus on some particular area of obsessive interest. For these people, work wasn’t just work; it was their life’s passion, and they devoted every waking hour to it, usually to the exclusion of non-work relationships, exercise, sleep, food and sometimes even personal care. The popular stereotype of the geek was born in some real truths about the specific kinds of people who were drawn to tech in those early years.

The culture that grew up in the valley over the next few decades reflected and valorized the peculiarities of what Lockheed’s company psychologists were calling by the late ’50s “the sci-tech personality.” Companies broadened their working hours, so programmers who came in at noon and worked through till midnight could make their own schedules. Dress codes were loosened; personal eccentricities were celebrated. HP famously brought in breakfast every morning so its engineers would remember to eat. The local 24-hour supermarket carried microchips alongside the potato chips, so techies working in their garages could stop in at 2am for snacks and parts.

And then, in the early ‘80s, Tom Peters came along, and promoted the Silicon Valley work ethic to the rest of the country in the name of “excellence.” He extolled tech giants like HP and Apple for the “passion” of their workers, and told old-industry employers that they could move into the new age by seeking out and rewarding that kind of passion in their employees, too. Though Peters didn’t advocate this explicitly, it was implicitly understood that to “passionate” people, 40-hour weeks were old-fashioned and boring. In the new workplace, people would find their ultimate meaning and happiness in the sheer unrivaled joy of work. They wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

There were two problems with this. The first is that this “passion” ideal didn’t recognize that the vast majority of people have legitimate physical, emotional and psychological needs — things like sleep, exercise, relaxation and the maintenance of strong family and social support bonds — that these engineers didn’t have to nearly the same degree. The second was that most managers, lacking windows into their workers’ souls, decided to cut corners and measure passion with one easy-to-chart metric: “willingness to spend your entire life at the office.” (It was about this time, with gourmet company cafeterias and in-house fitness centers and on-site child care sprouting up in high-tech campuses all over town, that I realized if a company is working that hard to make the workplace feel like home, it’s a strong suggestion that their employees risk sanction if they ever attempt to visit their actual homes again.)

These were the early morning-in-America Reagan years. The unions — for 150 years, the guardians of the 40-hour week — were falling under a conservative onslaught; and in their place, the new cult of the entrepreneur was ascendant. All the old paternalistic contracts between employers and employees were torn up. Where companies once hoped to hire people young and nurture their careers through to a pensioned retirement — a lifelong relationship that required managers to take the long view about how to keep their workforces sustainably healthy and happy — young Gen Xers were being given a 401k and told to expect to change jobs every three to five years. Even while employers were demanding new levels of “passion” and commitment, they were also abdicating their old obligation to look after the long-term well-being of their employees.

The rapacious new corporate ethic was summarized by two phrases: “churn ‘em and burn ‘em” (a term that described Microsoft’s habit of hiring young programmers fresh out of school and working them 70 hours a week until they dropped, and then firing them and hiring more), and “working 90 hours a week and loving it!” (an actual T-shirt worn with pride by the original Macintosh team. (Productivity experts estimate that we’d have probably had the Mac a year sooner if they’d worked half as many hours per week instead.) And this mentality soon spread from the technology sector to every industry in every corner of the country.

The new ideal was to unleash “internal entrepreneurs” — Randian übermenschen who would devote all their energies to the corporation’s success, in expectation of great reward — and who were willing to assume all the risks themselves. In this brave new world, the real go-getters were the ones who were willing to put in weekends and Saturdays, who put their families on hold, who ate at their desks and slept in their cubicles. Forty-hour weeks were for losers and slackers, who began to vanish from America’s business landscape. And with their passing, we all but forgot all the very good reasons that we used to have those limits.

Within 15 years, everything America’s managers used to know about sustaining worker productivity was forgotten. Now, 30 years and a few economic meltdowns on, the cafeterias and child-care centers and gyms are mostly gone, along with the stock options and bonuses that were once held out as the potential reward for the long hours. All that remains of those heady, optimistic days is the mandatory 60-hour work-week. And, unless you’re an hourly worker — still entitled to time and a half by law — the only inducement employers currently offer in exchange for submitting yourself to this abuse is that you get to keep your job.
Bring Back the 40-Hour Work Week (Salon) The original article describes the extensive research that shows how crushing overwork leads to diminishing productivity, sloppy work, increased errors, and a sicker workforce, erasing any of the supposed"gains" from working people like a mule. Related: How Autistic People Helped Shape the Modern World (Wired):
One way to understand it is to think of human operating systems. Just because a computer is not running Windows does not mean it’s broken. It’s doing things in different ways. Autistic people are bad at reading social signals but good at detecting flaws in visual patterns. They have a hard time coping with surprise, but they’re good at pursuing a personal interest with great focus and intensity. So instead of diseases and cures and causations, we should think of autism as a different way of being that deserves respect and accommodation in society.
But it goes back even further than that:
It’s fitting that Thomas Edison, the father of artificial light, was also a staunch opponent of sleep. As Derickson writes in his book Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness, “Edison spent considerable amounts of his own and his staff’s energy on in publicizing the idea that success depended in no small part in staying awake to stay ahead of the technological and economic competition.”

No one, Derickson argues, “did more to frame the issue as a simple choice between productive work and unproductive rest.”

Early newspaper accounts touted Edison’s willingness to work “at all hours, night or day,” to frequently rack up more than a hundred hours of work in a week, and his tendency to select his subordinates based largely on their physical endurance.

In an 1889 interview with Scientific American, Edison claimed he slept no more than four hours a day, and he apparently enforced the same vigilance among his employees.

“At first the boys had some difficulty in keeping awake, and would go to sleep under stairways and in corners,” Edison said. “We employed watchers to bring them out, and in time they got used to it.”

Edison’s assistants were “expected to keep pace with him,” John Hubert Greusel wrote in 1913. “When they fell from sheer exhaustion he seemed to begrudge the brief hours they were sleeping.”

Over time, children’s books and magazines began to promote this type of Edisonian asceticism. “One juvenile motivational text featured a photo of Edison with a group of workers identified as his Insomnia Squad,” Derickson writes. Early 20th century biographies of Edison featured him interviewing job candidates at 4 a.m. and cat-napping on lab benches between marathon work sessions.

Some short-sleepers might have shrugged and said they were simply biologically lucky. But Edison encouraged all Americans to follow his lead, claiming that sleeping eight hours a night was a waste and even harmful.

“There is really no reason why men should go to bed at all,” he said in 1914.
Thomas Edison and the Cult of Sleep Deprivation (The Atlantic)

Think it's only white-collar workers who live that reality? Think again:
Every Monday, I worked a double, arriving around 6 a.m. to prep the entire station from scratch, worked lunch service, broke down the station, prepped for dinner, set up, then worked until midnight. At most, I took one 15-minute break to shovel food into my mouth. When the night was over, I would take the subway home, arriving home around 2:30 a.m., sleep until 6 a.m., wake up, and go back to work. That's how my team and I started every single week. The constant pressure to perform drives cooks to work at a level most people would consider insane. Showing up hours before schedule to prep—unpaid of course—just to handle the work load. Or clock out, pretend to go home with the team, walk around the block then go back in the kitchen and work for free for hours....Can't handle it? I'm sure the guy over there would love the opportunity to do the job just a little better than you. That attitude was pervasive, so cooks would form miniature alliances and networks of teams to help each other succeed while making sure certain people had no shot.
What Is It Like to Be a Chef at an Expensive Restaurant? (Slate)To be not busy is to be unimportant:
For upper-middle class men, notes sociologist Michèle Lamont, ambition and a strong work ethic are “doubly sacred. . . as signals of both moral and socioeconomic purity.” Elite men’s jobs revolve around the work devotion schema, which communicates that high-level professionals should “demonstrate commitment by making work the central focus of their lives” and “manifest singular ‘devotion to work,’ unencumbered with family responsibilities,” to quote sociologist Mary Blair-Loy. This ideal has roots in the 17th century Protestant work ethic, in which work was viewed as a “calling” to serve God and society. The religious connection has vanished….or has it?

Blair-Loy draws parallels between the words bankers used to describe their work — “complete euphoria” or “being totally consumed” — and Emile Durkheim’s classic account of a religion ceremony among Australian natives. “I worshipped my mentor,” said one woman. Work becomes a totalizing experience. “Holidays are a nuisance because you have to stop working,” said one banker interviewed by Blair-Loy. “I remember being really annoyed when it was Thanksgiving. Damn, why did I have to stop working to go eat turkey? I missed my favorite uncle’s funeral, because I had a deposition scheduled that was too important.”

Work devotion marries moral purity with elite status. Way back when I was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School, I used to call it the cult of busy smartness. How do the elite signal to each other how important they are? “I am slammed” is a socially acceptable way of saying “I am important.” Fifty years ago, Americans signaled class by displaying their leisure: think banker’s hours (9 to 3). Today, the elite — journalist Chrystia Freeland calls them “the working rich” — display their extreme schedules.

Not only is work devotion a “class act” — a way of enacting class status — it’s also a certain way of being a “real” man. Working long hours is seen as a “heroic activity,” noted Cynthia Fuchs Epstein and her co-authors in their 1999 study of lawyers. Marianne Cooper’s study of engineers in Silicon Valley closely observes how working long hours turns pencil pushing or computer keyboarding into a manly test of physical endurance. “There’s a kind of machismo culture that you don’t sleep,” one father told her. “Successful enactment of this masculinity,” Cooper concludes, “involves displaying one’s exhaustion, physically and verbally, in order to convey the depth of one’s commitment, stamina, and virility.”
Why Men So Many Hours (Harvard Business Review)

It wasn't supposed to be this way:
It took labor unions hundreds of years to get workers nights and weekends off; smartphones have taken them away in less than a decade.

There are hundreds of studies describing America’s epidemic of overwork, the end of free nights and weekends, the constant stress brought on by digital umbilical cords, the constant interruptions from email, voicemail, instant messages, tweets, Snapchats.   Smartphone users check their e-mail 150 times every day, according to industry research. Workers recently told researchers that 50 percent are expected to check their e-mail on weekends, and 34 percent while on vacation. No matter on that last point: Most Americans fail to take their meager allotment of vacation anyway.

Meanwhile, Americans seem to think they like this. A Gallup poll released this month found that employees who check email outside of work are 25 percent more likely to say they experienced a lot of stress yesterday, yet by about the same margin, they are likely to describe themselves as “thriving.” Yep – many Americans seem to think stress is good for them.

Even if overwork isn’t killing you, it’s almost certainly hurting you. The American Journal of Epidemiology summarized work and health risk research recently and published this list of horribles: “Long working hours have been found to be associated with cardiovascular and immunologic reactions, reduced sleep duration, unhealthy lifestyle, and adverse health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, subjective health complaints, fatigue, and depression.”
50 years ago, the World's Fair promised a life of leisure. We're still waiting (BoingBoing)

Aren't you glad modern conveniences have given us so much leisure and made us all healthier?


  1. Not to make this about me, but I'm obviously almost an obsolete human. As an introvert, easily exhausted by my job in purchasing work because of the nonstop fielding of questions, problems, quotes for materials, etc., I couldn't possibly handle this job for 50+ hours per week. 40 hours is too much, actually. (I envy our tradespeople, who are protected by their union against "mission creep" and underhiring.)

    When I read articles on collapsenik blogs, often people in the comments section wonder why the system hasn't collapsed by now. Well, we may have fewer people working, but those fewer workers are working twice as hard. So the system keeps on going.

    When automation finally replaces the 112+ hour per week people who will be the final front-line soldiers keeping it all going, then we'll see collapse.

    No workers = no consumers = no economy, and I imagine that's where this all has to end up before light bulbs go on over the heads of sociopathic CEOs.

    1. It's especially sad, because even a bad job is somewhat tolerable if it's only 20 hours a week. With shorter weeks, at least if we can only create McJobs, there's still time to do other things.

      I'm apparently obsolete too :(


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