The ceaselessly productive worker, with little time for rest, let alone any need or desire for it, stands today as a heroic icon, particularly in the high-strung white-collar milieus of Silicon Valley and Wall Street. The desired persona is one that transcends needs for sleep, care, relationships, and any other obligation that might distract from work and profit.
In this world, legendary figures are the ones who remain in the office for one hundred hours straight, working through their children’s musical recitals and 104-degree fevers. The idea is that workers become superhuman through the refusal of self-care.
This phenomenon isn’t merely depressing; it’s outright dangerous. In 2013, a twenty-one-year-old intern at Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s London office died suddenly. He had been working until 6 AM for three consecutive days. In the summer of 2014, a long-haul truck driver overturned his vehicle on the New Jersey Turnpike, severely injuring comedian Tracey Morgan and killing a companion of Morgan’s. The truck driver had not slept in more than twenty-four hours.
Less headline-grabbing are the more mundane degradations that overwork and sleep deprivation visit on the body: increased rates of illness, anxiety, depression, even coronary heart disease.
All of these instances — from sudden, untimely deaths to worn-out immune systems unable to fend off another cold — are the consequences of the extent to which we’ve allowed work to dominate our lives. Outside the pantheon of high-earning super-workers, everyone is getting less sleep and working longer hours. In industries from medicine to long-haul trucking, grinding schedules that colonize ever more of our waking (and sleeping) hours are a point of pride. This is the case despite the fact that studies continually show that overwork is counterproductive.
There are numerous reasons for the disappearance of the forty-hour workweek, but journalist Sara Robinson singles out work cultures that promote worker passion as one of them. She sees this culture taking root first in the defense and then in the tech industries in late twentieth-century California.
During the Cold War, defense companies like Lockheed in the Santa Clara Valley drew scores of ambitious scientists; these workers seemed to share certain personality traits, including social awkwardness, emotional detachment, and, namely, a single-mindedness about their work to the point at which “they devoted every waking hour to it, usually to the exclusion of nonwork relationships, exercise, sleep, food, and even personal care.” In the late ’50s, Lockheed’s own company psychologists created a label for this particular bundle of traits: “the sci-tech personality.”
Managers had found a type of worker who gladly put aside, seemingly for the long term, nonwork desires and obligations, and even the most basic physical needs of hygiene and sleep. These workers were branded not as worrisome but as “passionate,” with all the positive connotations of that word. And by the 1980s, a valley full of “passionate” workers was fertile ground for a burgeoning tech industry. Passionate overworkers like Steve Jobs became icons, not just to tech workers but also to the culture at large.
With passion as a new workplace requirement, it needed to be measured in some way, so that the passion of individual workers could be compared and used to mete out rewards and punishments. Enter the managers, who resorted to the laziest, most easily graphable, least imaginative way possible to gauge this intangible quality: hours spent in the office.
This intractable policy remains largely in place today. “We just don’t know any other way to measure [workers], except by their hours,” an office manager sighed to a team of workplace consultants in 2014. This exasperation was aired a year after the consultants did a study of the same workplace, which revealed that employees were more productive when encouraged to take intermittent breaks and were (gasp) “permitted to leave as soon as they had accomplished a designated amount of work.”
Passion as measured by hours has put the workweek on a course of runaway inflation, to the point at which people are actually shortening their lives and endangering others — sometimes in sudden, tragic form — in pursuit of an ever-elusive ideal of capitalistic individualism.
Why do we allow ourselves to continue like this? If, according to the “Do What You Love” ethic, the pleasure of work derives from the very act of production, what are workers doing during all of those surplus hours when they are not, well, producing or producing only poorly? Why are salaried workers lingering in the office after their work is done or when they are beyond the point of meaningful production, only making themselves less effective in the long term?
The answer clearly has nothing to do with economic rationality and everything to do with ideology. Although simple Excel charts may present the flimsiest guise of empirical, objective data about workers’ supposed passion, the truth is that passion doesn’t equal hours spent in the office, nor does it necessitate burning oneself out. Passion is all too often a cover for overwork cloaked in the rhetoric of self-fulfillment.
The falsity of passion-as-hours logic is that, quite simply, it produces shoddy work, which is not what someone who is ostensibly passionate about his or her work would allow. Emphasizing passion as a value in employees diminishes other potential — seemingly obvious — attitudes toward work that have more to bear on the quality of the work itself, things like competence and good faith.
Passion, overwork, and 24/7 temporality are linked together by much more than the need for simple managerial metrics. Carl Cederström and Peter Fleming argue that work today is of such a nature that it exploits workers not only during their time in the workplace, but also in their very act of living.
Employers seek to capture our “human qualities like social intelligence, reciprocity, communication, and shared initiative.” They add, “The traditional point of production — say the factory assembly line — is scattered to every corner of our lives since it is now our very sociality that creates value for business.”
This logic applies to nearly every level of the workforce, from the public face an executive provides for his corporation to barista small talk. When personal authenticity is demanded every moment at work, “our authenticity is no longer a retreat from the mandatory fakeness of the office, but the very medium through which work squeezes the life out of us.” If everyone is always working anyway and the distinctions between our work and nonwork selves are muddled, staying in the office for an extra hour or three doesn’t seem a terribly significant decision.
And when a worker has internalized a DWYL ethic, it hardly seems like a decision at all.