SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA JOB MARKET : Raising Hard Questions About the Work Ethic

America was built by hard work, but today psychologists and other trend watchers are reexamining the roots of the American work ethic and questioning whether its origin is more obsessive than healthy.

“The context of the work ethic has changed in the post-industrial economy,” says Charles Garfield, an Oakland psychologist who has studied overachievers and peak performers. “A big BMW is not necessary for survival. We now have other choices, but a lot of people have to be convinced of that in their work styles.”

Working hard is supported by our cultural and even religious convictions, but Garfield and others are asking if this achievement-oriented society isn’t pushing the work ethic toward an unhealthy extreme.

Would Horatio Alger stories today be judged workaholic? Would George Washington and Ben Franklin, fiends for effort both, be called sick?


“Our nation was definitely founded by workaholics,” says Mark Held, a Boulder, Colo., psychologist who studies overachievers.

So is the American workplace demanding too much from its employees? Many experts say it is.

“We’re working longer and we’re confusing longer with more productive,” Garfield says.

Real wages, for example, fell 13.8% from 1973 to 1990, so people are earning less for the time they’re putting in at work.


And they’re putting in more time. Americans spent an average of 43.5 hours a week on the job in 1990, up from 39 hours in 1985, according to government statistics.

Thus, Leslie Rose, a San Diego career counselor, might be talking about a society rather than a few individuals when she says: “Workaholics find themselves working harder and harder for less and less return.”

The record level of worker compensation claims being filed suggests that the work environment is contributing to overall life stress.

“The higher instances of cardiovascular disease, psychosomatic disorders, migraines, coronary heart disease and other physical and psychological ailments is traceable particularly to work factors,” says Garfield, who studied a wide range of corporate organizations for his new book, “Second to None.”


Of course, working hard doesn’t make you a workaholic, and most people Held has studied don’t fall into the workaholic category. “They simply share the work ethic and aren’t compulsively driven,” he says.

Moreover, work, like exercise, can be a healthy addiction, better than drugs or alcohol. Says Held: “Work can be great therapy and a great way to cope with stress, up to a point.”

But experts say there are increasing numbers of people whose entire self-worth is derived from their work, to the exclusion of everything--and everyone--else. “They don’t have a life outside their jobs,” Rose says.

Those most likely to slip into a work compulsion are professionals such as lawyers and doctors, who don’t work a structured 9-to-5 day, people with their own businesses, and top corporate executives, Held says. “The kind of people who can work as many hours as are in a week” he says.


Diane Fassel, author of the book “Working Ourselves to Death,” says workaholism is already a terrible problem in the United States, one that American companies haven’t paid much attention to--until recently. “Corporations are very interested in workaholism because it’s affecting their pocketbooks,” she says.

Fassel says it is a myth that workaholics are more productive than their peers. “What corporations are finding is that workaholics are not good for them. They tend to make more mistakes, they’re not really ‘present,’ and when they burn out, their work compensation claims are twice the average worker’s,” she says.

All the same, workaholics are held up as role models. Says Fassel: “Our society encourages workaholism by seeing it as a positive addiction, which is insidious.”

If nations can be workaholics, than Japan probably is one. The Japanese work 500 more hours a year than we do (although we out-clock the Germans by 250 hours a year).


The Japanese worker’s dedication can even result in karoshi, or work death, a syndrome that experts are also studying in the United States. “The Japanese are studying why so many workers are dying in their 40s and discovering that there are upper limits to workaholism. You can’t ask people for that kind of sacrifice,” Garfield says.

In his studies, particularly of the Wall Street financial community and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Garfield finds a huge distinction between peak performers and the popular notion of a workaholic.

“There’s a misperception in the culture that workaholics get ahead,” he says.

He found workaholics had strong early careers and were seen as up and comers. But their narrow focus and general lack of relationships at work and home led to burnout.


“Wall Street in the ‘80s is the best example you can pick,” he says. “There you had rampant work and addictive greed. People there lost track of any other value but financial gain, and few of them really enjoyed the fruits of their labor.”

He compares that group to the NASA employees he studied who worked for three years as they prepared for the first manned moon landing in 1969. “These people put in long hours, but were much more interested in getting it right and exceeding the boundaries of science. Their attitudes were more like that of committed artists. They had to get it right. It had nothing to do with making a ton of money.”

Garfield and Fassel see many American companies attempting to create healthier work environments that allow for some systematic form of relaxation and exercise. Companies are also re-examining their work philosophies by instituting more team-based work cultures, says Garfield.

“I think a new American work ethic is emerging,” he says. “The single most ridiculous thing a corporation can do is burn out its people. The successful worker today collaborates best in a team context. And that’s making it harder for workaholics to find their place.”