Have you heard of the term “workism”? I read an interesting article in The Atlantic recently titled, “Workism is Making Americans Miserable”. Workism is the idea that our work is a means of identity. It’s not the same as being a workaholic, which is a person who compulsively works hard and long hours. Workism is the concept that work not only provides us with the money to survive but that it’s the centerpiece of our life’s purpose.
If that’s the definition of workism, I can immediately see how it can be detrimental. In the United States, there are plenty of research studies that show Americans work longer hours, take less vacation time, and retire later than most countries with comparable economies. And I’ll be the first to admit that’s there’s nothing wrong with working. I work long hours. I like to work. I have great clients who ask me to work with them on interesting projects. But work isn’t the only thing that defines me. And I think that’s the point.
There a real risk that, if work is the sum and substance of a person’s identity, it could create an unmanageable level of stress and burnout. You’ve probably seen t-shirts like I have about “always hustling” or “never stop…”. Instead of viewing these statements more as inspiration or guidelines, some people are taking these mantras literally and ultimately finding themselves physically and spiritually exhausted.
As human resources professionals, we need to be aware of this trend. While The Atlantic article talks about workism in the context of the Millennial generation, I could see this happening at any generation. We could have employees at our organizations right now who are working a full-time job with us and a side hustle outside of work … leading to disengagement, stress, and burnout. Yes, we want employees to work hard and be productive. And if they want to do some gigs on the side, then great. We also need for employees to understand and practice healthy balance.
I totally understand that employees get their perceptions about work from many different places: past and current employers, business leaders, the media, etc. Organizations have the ability through their company cultures to help employees understand the role work should play in their lives. Make no mistake – work is important. But does it really need to define us? Hmmm…
Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby at a Cirque du Soleil show in Orlando, FL16