It’s 3PM. You and a colleague are sitting next to each other when your boss comes in and asks, “Hey, do one of you have the bandwidth to help me?”
In the time it takes for a glance and an elongated, “Ummm — ,” each of you weighs office culture, hierarchies, relationships, and personal motivation, while pondering what kind of work is on the other side of yes, and could you save face if you dished out a no.
One of the tools to get you to sear your hand on the potato for longer than is necessary (or healthy) is by claiming that those second degree burns are a form of “good work ethic.” It’s an idea that is manifested in phrases like “Above and beyond,” “Do whatever it takes,” and “Can’t stop, won’t stop.”
Why do we always reach for metaphors of pack mules when describing “work ethic”? I mean, we’ve tried to give “work smarter, not harder” some love, but when it comes to articulating office value, an opportune vulture maximizing leverage, or a covert chameleon hiding in plain sight cannot compete with the imagery of a beast of burden barreling towards burnout.
Why not? Because — like Neanderthal DNA that still lingers in some of our genetic code — the Puritan ethos of “work hard because it serves God” still defines who we are in the workplace.
It’s toil, not cunning, that provides our worth in America. (Sweat we can see, smarts we cannot.)
Asserting some sort of theological lens to work is a devilish idea, especially in a capitalist context, where more is always better. Because instead of subsistence farming and tilling the earth, we now work for the sake of growth. If we’re not growing, we’re not working hard enough, apparently. Even rest is pitched in its relationship to future output. “Go on vacation to get recharged” — presumably, for more work.
When we use “good worth ethic” to solely refer to minutes of effort, creativity and dignity get replaced by servitude.
Sure, punctuality, dependability, a bout of output, or helping a colleague in need are examples of having a good work ethic, but they’re not the only thing.