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  • David Wudyka

Why Do We Work So Hard?

steel workers, employee productivity

There’s a famous research question that has been studied in academic circles for many years: how can we get people to work harder in the workplace? The outcomes of such research are a long historical line of business incentive plans that often pay people a bonus for more “productivity”, however defined.

Having heard this question, a savvy researcher once responded “Yes, that’s an interesting question, but an even more curious question to contemplate is “Why do people work as hard as they do?” Touche. That is the question.

We do seem to take hard work for granted. For highly productive workers, we may attribute it to the “Puritan Work Ethic.” Some believe we have genetically inherited this gene. For lower worker productivity levels, we may attribute them to poor values about work or a failure of nurturing. Whatever the productivity level, it’s great to ask why.

In an article in the Economist (“Why Do We Work So Hard?”, April, 2017), Ryan Avent addresses this issue as it pertains to the contemporary workplace. Avent writes from a white collar perspective, but strives to explain the blue collar perspective as well. We will all work harder to maintain participation in an environment that we enjoy, such as one with strong social networks. Avent suggests that this is true for blue collar workers.

Mr. Avent alleges that we are essentially trapped in our roles, especially higher level professionals who have an unending need to strive for more. Meanwhile, the world around us conveys that we are falling behind, perhaps even lacking the “right knowledge,” in or out of our professional fields. But if we “jump off the train” of hard work and later jump back on, we may not be accepted by those who persevered and remained. Therefore we stay, and we work even harder.

Mr. Avent cites the positive qualities of the strivers. They must tackle challenging problems that, when solved, impart great satisfaction. When done, the hunt continues for even more challenges. David McClelland, a famous academician and researcher, called such people “high achievement need” people.

People who “make life good” for others often have a strong, persistent drive toward their goal of helping people. Mother Theresa demonstrated this over her long lifetime. They’ve long ago come to grips with the answer to the question “is this a good idea?” and “can I do it?” They know the objective is good, regardless of the personal cost.

What can you do to make life good for others? Whatever it is, it’ll be worth it.

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