On “workism” and American attitudes toward work

A couple of days ago, I posted on Facebook that I had managed to crank out a 30-page draft of an article, citing roughly 75 sources, in four days. Although I was happy with the draft when I submitted it for possible publication, upon rereading it I quickly saw its rough edges. Nevertheless, some of my Facebook pals gave me kudos for having hunkered down and completed the job, and I have to say that I was giving myself a pat on the back for having pulled it off.

But today I read this piece by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic, “Workism Is Making America Miserable” (link here) and I had to wonder if it was speaking to me:

The economists of the early 20th century did not foresee that work might evolve from a means of material production to a means of identity production. They failed to anticipate that, for the poor and middle class, work would remain a necessity; but for the college-educated elite, it would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism.

…The decline of traditional faith in America has coincided with an explosion of new atheisms. Some people worship beauty, some worship political identities, and others worship their children. But everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants.

What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.

OK, so some might understandably say that “workism” is merely a repackaged way of saying workaholic. But Thompson is taking the latter notion a step further. He’s basically giving social class and (male) gendered angles to this deep, sometimes obsessive quest to work. He confesses that he is a “workist” whose personal identity “is so bound up in my job, my sense of accomplishment, and my feeling of productivity,” yet he also realizes that this isn’t good for him or for society. In fact, he makes suggestions for public policy reform that combat workism. (He shares plenty of details in the full article, which I heartily recommend.)

I am very grateful for the work I get to do. In terms of my work as a professor, with the exception of grading exams (a necessary evil) and faculty meetings (ditto, sometimes minus “necessary”), it’s a wonderful job. Teaching, scholarship, and service — the troika that make up a professor’s core job duties — are very rewarding activities. But geez, I saw a lot of myself in that article. It’s not unusual for me to work seven days a week.

However, I break with the workism theme here: While Thompson says that workism has replaced faith for some, I don’t necessarily look at it that way. Although my religious beliefs are a work-in-progress — I believe in a God whose truth is somewhere in the intersection of the great faith traditions and various notions of spirituality — that hodgepodge of values helps to infuse my work with meaning. There are many others with much more defined religious beliefs who see their work as a personal ministry. And for those who see their work as an opportunity to create positive change, it’s not about making more money. 

That said, all work and no play can be an unhealthy recipe. I’m trying to do better on that elusive work-life balance thing. One of my hobbies is singing. For years I’ve taken a weekly singing workshop at a local adult education center. I’ve also become a regular at a local karaoke studio. I love the Great American Songbook — Sinatra, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, and Rodgers & Hammerstein, and some of the classic singer-songwriters are among my favorites. In fact, I’ll be crooning a few tunes at karaoke this weekend.

Skipping Bible study? Ordering a deli platter? You may be violating company rules

Prepping for my WeWork interview

Periodically the media treats us to stories that illustrate the power of employers to control workers’ lives in ways that may have little to do with the actual product or service they are providing. This summer I spotted a couple of stories that fall into this category.

Thou shalt not skip Bible study

NPR’s Sasha Ingber reports on an Oregon construction company worker, Ryan Coleman, who filed a religious discrimination lawsuit after being fired for no longer attending Christian Bible study sessions, as required by his employer, Dahled Up Construction:

According to the complaint, he was hired as a painter in October 2017 and discovered on the job that he was required to attend Christian Bible study as part of his employment.

Coleman, who is half-Native American (Cherokee and Blackfoot), wasn’t comfortable with those terms, his attorney, Corinne Schram, told NPR. “He says his church is a sweat lodge, his bible is a drum, and that’s his form of worship to the creator,” Schram said.

According to the document, Coleman expressed his discomfort with attending the Bible study meetings and said the requirement was illegal, but business owner Joel Dahl insisted that he go anyway.

. . . After several months, Coleman finally refused to go to the religious sessions and was fired from the job, according to the filing.

Of sprouts and spinach leaves

WeWork is a company that rents co-working space to entrepreneurs and start-up business ventures. It has grown by leaps and bounds in cities where office real estate is expensive. As David Gelles reports for the New York Times, it also now limits company food and catering orders to vegetarian selections only:

WeWork is no longer a safe space for carnivores.

Earlier this month, the co-working juggernaut announced that it was essentially going vegetarian. The company will no longer serve red meat, pork or poultry at company functions, and it will not reimburse employees who want to order a hamburger during a lunch meeting.

In a memo to employees announcing the new policy, Miguel McKelvey, WeWork’s co-founder and chief culture officer, said the decision was driven largely by concerns for the environment, and, to a lesser extent, animal welfare.

Legal restrictions and management practices

Generally speaking, private sector employers enjoy wide leeway in setting company hiring and work policies, so long as they do not violate discrimination laws and similar protections.

The Bible study requirement directly implicates an employee’s right to be free of religious discrimination by an employer. The vegetarian food order requirement, however, does not appear to run afoul of any employment laws.

Legal distinctions aside, I think there’s a strong case for removing the company mandates in both situations. I respect that a business owner may want to create a company that embraces certain values. However, I also think that we need to give workers room to be themselves in their everyday choices.

It’s about getting the balance right.

On organizations, evil, and the seeds of mobbing: Ray Russell’s “The Case Against Satan”

In Ray Russell’s 1962 novel The Case Against Satan, we have a normally sweet and well-behaved teenaged girl named Susan Garth now acting in frightening and bizarre ways. Catholic Bishop Conrad Crimmings concludes that she may be demonically possessed, and he recruits the local parish priest, Gregory Sargent, to help perform an exorcism. Russell tells this chilling tale in under 140 pages, with almost all of the activity occurring within the rectory and adjoining rooms of the church.

Of course, if you’re familiar with late 20th century American pop culture, then you may be thinking that The Case Against Satan is a mere warm-up to William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, which gained fame first as a bestselling book (1971) and later as a blockbuster motion picture (1973).

But believe me, The Case Against Satan has more substance. I won’t give too much away, but in addition to being a darn good horror story, it goes as deep as a short novel can get into matters such as the culture and history of the Catholic Church, the nature of evil, and how community-based mobbing campaigns start. I picked up it because I was looking for a good, scary read that wouldn’t exceed my currently all-too-short attention span. I got something much more, including storylines that spoke to my work with surprising resonance.

 

Bernard Law: A defining legacy of enabling widespread abuse

Here in Boston, holiday celebrations and observations have been harshly interrupted by news of the death of Cardinal Bernard Law, whose long-time leadership of the Archdiocese of Boston was defined by widespread cover-ups of sexual abuse of children committed by priests. As reported by Mark Feeney for the Boston Globe:

Cardinal Bernard F. Law, whose 19-year tenure as head of the Archdiocese of Boston ended in his resignation after it was revealed he had failed to remove sexually abusive priests from the ministry, setting off a scandal that reached around the world, died Tuesday. He was 86.

…The abuse scandal was “the greatest tragedy to befall children — ever” in the Commonwealth, the attorney general’s office said in 2003, and “as archbishop, and therefore chief executive of the archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law bears ultimate responsibility for the tragic treatment of children that occurred during his tenure. But by no means does he bear sole responsibility.”

Not surprisingly, Law’s death has reopened wounds (if they were healed at all) of many of the victims and their families. Especially due to Boston’s large Catholic population, the priest sexual abuse scandal is one of the most tragic and painful events in the city’s history.

On Wednesday, Globe columnist Kevin Cullen pulled no punches in describing Law’s true legacy:

Bernie Law — and that’s what I’ll call him, because he was no more special than you or I — was one of the greatest enablers of sexual abuse in the history of the world.

…And that’s how Bernie Law should be remembered. If only because it will serve as a grievous warning to others who may try to shroud themselves in good works and think their legacy will survive their complicity with nothing short of evil.

…Bernie Law presided over one of the worst networks of sexual abusers ever assembled. Thousands of children were raped and molested on his watch. Some of them killed themselves. Some were dead, in their souls, from the moment they were inappropriately touched by a priest. He sent the priests who raped and molested on to other parishes to do more of what they did, rather than call scandal to his church.

Bernard Law’s critical role in covering up the abuse and protecting both the archdiocese and the child predators on its payroll continues to raise profound moral and ethical questions about the social responsibilities of institutional leaders. By enabling, supporting, and protecting dozens of sexual abusers, with full knowledge of their behaviors, I posit that he was even more culpable than the individual predators. As such, his enormous failings remind us that interpersonal abuse within institutions rarely occurs in a vacuum. It is often made possible by organizational cultures stoked by those at the top.

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Related post

Lessons from “Spotlight” for combating interpersonal abuse (2017)

Tolerance and acceptance at work

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Journalist Joanne Richard kindly interviewed me for a Monster Canada piece on tolerance at work, timed to coincide with the United Nations’ International Tolerance Day on November 16. Here are some of my comments:

Workplaces have become more inclusive and tolerant in the past five decades, says Dr. David Yamada, internationally recognized authority on workplace bullying and employment discrimination. “More enlightened social attitudes and the messaging roles of employment discrimination laws have contributed to this progress.”

But recent divisive political antics may have set us back: “Survey data from the American Psychological Association indicate that the U.S. presidential election has had a negative effect on workplace conversations and that workers are divided by gender and generation, all to the detriment of overall productivity,” says Yamada, law professor and director of New Workplace Institute at Suffolk University Law School in Boston.

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Incivility, ostracism, bullying, and harassment remain serious problems in less-than-wonderful workplaces, says Yamada. “Of course, external individual events may fuel intolerance in the workplace as well. These range from the seemingly trivial, such as sports rivalries, to the more serious, such as politics, religion, and major public events,” he says.

Bad behaviour takes its toll, including increased interpersonal conflicts, greater stress and anxiety, and drops in individual and organizational productivity, he adds.

I gave these three suggestions for creating more tolerant, inclusive workplaces:

  • “Let’s give each other some room to express our differences, to vent, and to have a bad day.”
  • “Play and work by the Golden Rule.”
  • “Contribute to building organizational cultures of acceptance and individual dignity.”

Tolerance, acceptance, and taking a stand

I must admit that I sometimes struggle with the term “tolerance” in these contexts. When I think of the word, it means a sort of grudging, teeth-gritting exercise of breathing deep and keeping your mouth shut when something rubs you the wrong way, a sort of coping in relative silence for some greater good. I should know, as I’ve been there and sometimes go back there!

Acceptance of differences is a much more splendored next level. All things being equal, a live-and-let-live attitude is better for everyone. When I’m in that place, I can practically feel my blood pressure lowering.

However, I know that all things are not equal, which is why a pie-in-the-sky, happily ignorant form of acceptance won’t work for me. Among other things, working toward acceptance does not mean tolerating (or, heaven forbid, accepting) the intolerable or intolerant. Sometimes we must take a stand, hopefully in the most effective way possible.

Here in the U.S., we’re struggling with this in the aftermath of the presidential election. This struggle is manifesting itself in our workplaces, communities, and circles of friends and family. I have a feeling we’re in for a very bumpy ride, and the ways in which we relate to one another individually will make a big difference.

 

Does a sense of purpose contribute to a longer life?

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(image courtesy of clipartpanda.com)

In a piece for the Huffington Post, Shelley Emling summons research suggesting that living with a sense of purpose and direction can extend our stays in this life as well:

What’s the key to long life? Is it clean living? Lots of exercise? An abundance of vegetables? Actually, the key to long life may be something a bit more intangible: a sense of purpose.

Researchers studying longevity say those who feel a sense of purpose and direction in life may indeed live longer, no matter what their age.

She quotes Patrick Hill of Carleton University (Canada), lead researcher in a study suggesting that a strong sense of life purpose may have “protective effects”:

“Our findings point to the fact that finding a direction for life, and setting overarching goals for what you want to achieve, can help you actually live longer, regardless of when you find your purpose. . . . So the earlier someone comes to a direction for life, the earlier these protective effects may be able to occur.”

Many potential sources

Although this blog is mainly about work and workers, let’s acknowledge right away that we can create or discover a sense of purpose in a variety of ways, including employment, an avocation, a hobby, or volunteer and philanthropic work. It can come out of devotion to others, such as parenting, caregiving, or helping animals. It may be inspired by a broader cause or a personal objective. Faith and spirituality may enter the picture as well.

It seems intuitive, doesn’t it? In fact, the capacity to develop our life purpose is one of the major distinguishing characteristics between humans and other living beings. Surely there are days when the life of a beloved dog or cat — basically hanging out, eating good food, playing when you feel like it, and getting lots of TLC — looks pretty good! But for we human folk, having a strong, motivating sense of purpose and direction is among the blessings that makes life worthwhile.

Good heavens: Bullying behaviors at Manhattan seminary

Goings on at the General Theological Seminary, an Episcopal seminary, illustrate how bullying behaviors can occur at virtually any type of workplace.

Sharon Otterman reports for the New York Times on a developing situation involving the fate of eight Seminary faculty members who were dismissed after protesting the behaviors of the school’s new dean and president, Kurt H. Dunkle:

A year after [Dunkle’s] arrival, however, the seminary has fallen into turmoil. Eight of its 10 full-time faculty members walked off the job on Friday to protest what they described in letters to the school’s board of trustees as Mr. Dunkle’s overly controlling management style, his habit of making vulgar and offensive remarks, and his frequent threats to demote or fire those who disagreed with him.

The work stoppage, faculty members said, was intended to force a dialogue with the board and, ideally, to lead to the firing of Mr. Dunkle. Instead, the tactic backfired. On Monday, the board dismissed the eight faculty members, leaving the seminary’s roughly 140 students, a month into their term, without professors to teach them.

Otterman’s article goes into considerable detail, and the story will be familiar to those who have experienced or witnessed bullying behaviors in the non-profit and educational sectors.

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Related posts

Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (rev. 2014)

Workplace bullying in the non-profit sector (2011)

When the bullying comes from a board member (2011)

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