Total Work

Tired woman in front of computer

Andrew Taggart is an entrepreneur, “practical philosopher,” and prolific writer who works with creative leaders at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and social entrepreneurs at Kaospilot in Denmark. In a recent article, he comments on the state of “total work,” a term coined by German philosopher Josef Pieper in his 1948 book Leisure: The Basis of Culture, which described the process by which society increasingly categorizes us as workers above all else.  Like Pieper, Taggart believes human experience derails when work is the dominant cultural norm:

“Imagine that work had taken over the world. It would be the centre around which the rest of life turned. Then all else would come to be subservient to work.

“And how, in this world of total work, would people think and sound and act?

“Everywhere they looked, they would see the pre-employed, employed, post-employed, underemployed and unemployed, and there would be no one uncounted in this census. Everywhere they would laud and love work, wishing each other the very best for a productive day, opening their eyes to tasks and closing them only to sleep.

“Everywhere an ethos of hard work would be championed as the means by which success is to be achieved, laziness being deemed the gravest sin. Everywhere among content providers, knowledge brokers, collaboration architects and heads of new divisions would be heard ceaseless chatter about workflows and deltas, about plans and benchmarks, about scaling up, monetisation and growth.

“[Work becomes total] when it is the centre around which all of human life turns; when everything else is put in its service; when leisure, festivity and play come to resemble and then become work; when there remains no further dimension to life beyond work; when humans fully believe that we were born only to work; and when other ways of life, existing before total work won out, disappear completely from cultural memory.

“Crucially, the attitude of the total worker is not grasped best in cases of overwork, but rather in the everyday way in which he is single-mindedly focused on tasks to be completed, with productivity, effectiveness and efficiency to be enhanced. How? Through the modes of effective planning, skilful prioritising and timely delegation. The total worker, in brief, is a figure of ceaseless, tensed, busied activity.”

Hmmm, sounds a lot like the practice of law…. But it’s not just lawyers, it’s everywhere. For the movers and shakers it’s build, fund, scale, execute, maximize, prioritize, manage, lead. For the rest it’s be early, stay late, be nice to callers and customers, and get through all that email — there might be something important in there. And everywhere it’s build the platform, get the clicks, likes, and follows, join the meetups and podcasts, eat healthy, buy the Peloton and the Beemer, learn a new language, take the beach vacation, drink the microbrew, subscribe to the curated monthly clothing delivery… it all counts.

There’s nothing intrinsically “bad” in all of that. I do a lot of it myself. But when everything we do is organized around trading our time and energy for reward in the marketplace, we’re going to suffer, individually and as a culture:

“To see how [total work]  causes needless human suffering, consider the illuminating phenomenology of total work as it shows up in the daily awareness of two imaginary conversation partners. There is, to begin with, constant tension, an overarching sense of pressure associated with the thought that there’s something that needs to be done, always something I’m supposed to be doing right now. As the second conversation partner puts it, there is concomitantly the looming question: Is this the best use of my time? Time, an enemy, a scarcity, reveals the agent’s limited powers of action, the pain of harrying, unanswerable opportunity costs.

“Together, thoughts of the not yet but supposed to be done, the should have been done already, the could be something more productive I should be doing, and the ever-awaiting next thing to do conspire as enemies to harass the agent who is, by default, always behind in the incomplete now… One feels guilt whenever he is not as productive as possible. Guilt, in this case, is an expression of a failure to keep up or keep on top of things, with tasks overflowing because of presumed neglect or relative idleness.

“The burden character of total work, then, is defined by ceaseless, restless, agitated activity, anxiety about the future, a sense of life being overwhelming, nagging thoughts about missed opportunities, and guilt connected to the possibility of laziness.”

In other words, total work is chronically stressful — a well-documented source of mental, physical, relational, and societal ill health. And the problem is, if we’re not already there, we’re alarmingly close:

“This world [of total work], it turns out, is not a work of science fiction; it is unmistakably close to our own.”

As a result:

“Off in corners, rumours would occasionally circulate about death or suicide from overwork, but such faintly sweet susurrus[i] would rightly be regarded as no more than local manifestations of the spirit of total work, for some even as a praiseworthy way of taking work to its logical limit in ultimate sacrifice.”

More on that coming up.

[i] I had to look up “susurrus.” It means “whispering, murmuring, or rustling.”

The Anti-Motivation Strategy (Part 3): The Dark Side of Motivation

All those motivational articles and advice want you to keep pouring on the motivation: more speeches, more posters, more rah-rah, more carrot and stick. And that means putting the human brain and body under chronic stress, pouring on the cortisol, keeping the fight or flight response on red alert.

Employee-Motivation resized

We’ve been trying to find a sustainable approach to getting motivated and staying motivated. No luck thus far. To go further in our search, it’s time to face…

The Dark Side Of Motivation

Vader_yelloweyes

Let’s sample some more scientific research:

Motivation, Stress, Anxiety, And Cortisol Responses In Elite Paragliders The title pretty much tells you what you need to know:  it uses motivation, stress, and anxiety together. Hold that thought.

Salivary Cortisol Changes In Humans After Winning Or Losing A Dominance Contest Depend On Implicit Power Motivation I think that means rah-rah works for some people, but shuts others down.

What do these articles have in common besides their long scholarly titles? They both talk about cortisol, known as “the stress hormone.” Back to WikiUniversity for a primer:

“Stress is a physiological and psychological stimulus and response that presents itself in many different ways throughout the body. Stress or a stressor can be thought of as any stimulus that upsets the bodies [sic] natural balance or hoemeostasis [sic].

“Stress is defined as any situation that upsets homeostasis within the body and threatens ones [sic] emotional or physical wellbeing.

“The dominant modern perspective is that emotions recruit biological and psychological supporters to enable adaptive behaviours i.e. fighting, running or empathetic situations. The two hormones of Adrenaline (Epinepherine) and cortisol support the ‘fight-or-flight’ stress reactive system.”

Obviously this Wiki contributor was having a bad spellcheck and grammar day, but we get the point:  stress knocks us out of whack, from the inside out. We’re not just skipping down the happy motivation road anymore, we’re on the way to….

Cortisol, adrenaline, hormones, anxiety, fight or flight… oh my!

Lions and tigers and bears

Here’s the problem:  you need motivation to stay motivated.

That’s the bottom line of the Feed The Beast motivation strategy we looked at last time. All those motivational articles and advice want you to keep pouring on the motivation:  more speeches, more posters, more rah-rah, more carrot and stick. And that means putting the human brain and body under chronic stress, pouring on the cortisol, keeping the fight or flight response on red alert.

Not only is that lousy leadership and management, it’s lousy self-care, too. We’re not meant to live that way, and it certainly won’t empower us to perform at our best. The fight or flight response is supposed to be a quick fix — over and out when the threat has past. Chronic stress keeps the threat ever-present, which messes with mind and body, puts health at risk. Which is why…

All This Motivation Is Killing You

We’ll let the Mayo Clinic weigh in on this issue:

“Your body is hard-wired to react to stress in ways meant to protect you against threats from predators and other aggressors. Such threats are rare today, but that doesn’t mean that life is free of stress.

“On the contrary, you undoubtedly face multiple demands each day, such as shouldering a huge workload, making ends meet and taking care of your family. Your body treats these so-called minor hassles as threats. As a result you may feel as if you’re constantly under assault. But you can fight back. You don’t have to let stress control your life.

“When you encounter a perceived threat — a large dog barks at you during your morning walk, for instance — your hypothalamus, a tiny region at the base of your brain, sets off an alarm system in your body. Through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals, this system prompts your adrenal glands, located atop your kidneys, to release a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.

“Adrenaline increases your heart rate, elevates your blood pressure and boosts energy supplies. Cortisol, the primary stress hormone, increases sugars (glucose) in the bloodstream, enhances your brain’s use of glucose and increases the availability of substances that repair tissues.

“Cortisol also curbs functions that would be nonessential or detrimental in a fight-or-flight situation. It alters immune system responses and suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system and growth processes. This complex natural alarm system also communicates with regions of your brain that control mood, motivation and fear.

“The body’s stress-response system is usually self-limiting. Once a perceived threat has passed, hormone levels return to normal. As adrenaline and cortisol levels drop, your heart rate and blood pressure return to baseline levels, and other systems resume their regular activities.

“But when stressors are always present and you constantly feel under attack, that fight-or-flight reaction stays turned on.

“The long-term activation of the stress-response system — and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones — can disrupt almost all your body’s processes. This puts you at increased risk of numerous health problems, including:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment.”

Comparable medical research abounds. If you want more, here’s a short article on how chronic stress hurts us. And here’s another.

More next time