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Overwork: Does it have To Be a Life of Quiet Desperation?


First published in AWIS Magazine Volume 30, issue 3 (Summer 2001)

I was in the checkout line of my local grocery store the other day, and a magazine in the news rack caught my eye. The magazine was titled Real Simple. The title caught me by surprise--I thought, "Has life gotten so complex that there is actually a need for this kind of magazine?" I picked up the magazine and started to leaf through it, but before I had any more time to ponder on life's complexities and how this magazine could possibly solve them, a tired looking woman in line next to me said, "Don't you just love that magazine? I started subscribing to it last month." I told her that this was the first I had seen of this particular magazine, and asked her what she liked most about it. "Oh, I guess all the ideas on how to reduce stress and create more time for myself and my family - I could sure use it." On my way out of the store I thought of Thoreau's plea for a simpler life, since he felt that "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." [1]

If the woman I met in the grocery store is any indication, it seems that as workers, our desperation remains--along with the need to seek simplicity as Thoreau did at Walden Pond in 1841. One would think that with all of the technological marvels now at our disposal--computers, cell phones, and all those other wonderful, wireless gizmos out there--we would have plenty of time on our hands, and could easily live a simple life. Yet, most of us do not. In fact, I would hazard a guess that most women scientists lead a very harried and frenzied existence--we all overwork--both in our careers and at home.

So why do we overwork? Is it because we have no choice? Or do we?

The Concept of Overwork

A great deal has been written on the peculiar American compulsion for overwork even though it is not financially, physically, or emotionally beneficial. Some believe that it is "The American work ethic" that drives Americans to work excessively. The American work ethic has been touted again and again in the media as the driving force of the American economy, and a standard to which other nations aspire. So what is the American work ethic?

The American work ethic. The American work ethic has its roots in what is known as "the Protestant ethic," ideals developed in medieval Europe by two key religious leaders--Martin Luther and John Calvin. Martin Luther believed that a person's vocation was equal to a religious calling, and therefore all vocations had equal dignity in the eyes of God [2], John Calvin later added to these ideals his premise that a hard-working individual would inherit eternal life [2]. These religious ideals were brought to this country by our Protestant founding fathers (and mothers!) and passed down through the generations to us. But could the American work ethic alone be the driving force that causes us to put work before our families and our health?

Consumerism and work addiction. Dr. Sally Power, an associate professor of management at the St. Thomas School of Business, believes overwork is a result of the American work ethic coupled with a combination of rampant consumerism and work addiction. In her article, "Caught in the Cycle of Overwork," Dr. Power argues that one of the reasons Americans overwork is to consume, and that we use consumerism to define ourselves. "We buy things not simply to survive, but to celebrate, to show we care for others, to show our status, to make life easier, to bring ourselves happiness, to create an save time and to spend time." [3] Dr. Power also argues that people can become addicted to work--that work becomes the entire focus of their lives. Work addicts define themselves by their work, and will work harder and longer to avoid other pressures in their lives [3]. Most of you are probably thinking, "These theories don't apply to me--I may enjoy my new laptop and have a very strong work ethic, but work doesn't control my life." Well and good, but after reading this column, you might want to think again.

Choosing a Balance between Work and Life

Expectation: the double edged sword. "No," you say, "This isn't about money or work addiction at all! It's about job security/tenure and family--what about that?" This question sounds like the product of conflicting expectations. Women scientists are overwhelmed with expectations. They are expected to be all things to all people--the perfect academician or industrial scientist, the perfect wife, and the perfect mom. A high expectation of oneself drives achievement in all aspects of life--doesn't it? But at what cost? Think about it--are these expectations realistic? Are the expectations you have for yourself based on the expectations others have for you? Is there a law that says that you can't change your own expectations to meet your changing needs? No--you can choose to change your expectations of yourself. Then, it is a matter of making the other people in your life aware that their expectations of you need to change. "But what about job security/tenure and my family?"

Expectations may change slowly, but they can change. I can't tell you how to communicate with your family or boss/committee. But if you make them aware that some of their expectations of you must change, and explain why their expectations need to change, they will eventually change. Will your husband, children and boss/committee understand? Who knows? But if the changes you suggest are reasonable, why not?

Ask the hard questions...then...make the hard choices. As scientists, we have been trained from day one to work hard. Long days and nights in the lab are de rigueur to becoming a successful scientist. "Face time" in the lab is a criterion by which your worth as a graduate student is judged. Once you graduate and find a career in industry or academia, you may find yourself spending extra time in the lab just to keep up with publication competition and the expectations of your company or of your tenure review committee. With circumstances such as these, it is easy to say, "No, I don't have a choice."

But in reality you do. You can choose to ask yourself some hard questions, and based on the answers you find within yourself, you will have to make some difficult decisions. "Why am I working so hard? Is it for money? Do I really need the money? Is there something I'm hiding from?" Are your expectations of yourself and of your graduate students or employees realistic? Are they humane? Consider encouraging more efficient use of your employees' time during working hours and discouraging excessive late night and weekend work. Consider using these options yourself--you probably need them as much as they do. Yes, there may be severe consequences in your personal and/or professional life by changing your expectations and perhaps working less or redirecting your focus, but until the system changes [4], you have to look after yourself--no one else will do it for you. No one said this was going to be easy. Is it worth it to sacrifice job security for family or health? No one can tell you that. That's a question you must decide for yourself. Remember the old adage, "Whenever a door closes, somewhere a window opens"? Perhaps you should start looking for alternatives.

Last night I spoke with a friend who is an untenured faculty member at an Ivy League institution. The expectations her department has for her, and thus, those she has for herself, are far beyond reasonable. She has more than a full teaching/advising load, is required to travel extensively, is expected to sit on numerous committees, and is expected to have a high publication rate. She is burning out--her life and health are suffering--but rather than throwing her hands in the air and giving up, she is bravely starting to look for alternatives. She is considering another university where she could still have tenure, as well as the opportunity to conduct the research she loves and instruct in her favorite subjects, but the university's expectation of her performance would be more reasonable than the Ivy League institution.

At one point in my own career, when it was common for me to work a 60-hour week, I failed to ask myself the hard questions. I chose work over life and I paid a price. The price I paid was a rather painful one, but the experience taught me to put my life above my work. Don't make the same mistake. Ask the hard questions. Make the difficult decisions. Don't count yourself among Thoreau's masses of the quietly desperate. Instead, choose to " deliberately...front the essential facts of life, and see if [you can] learn what [life] has to teach, and not, when [you] come to die, discover that [you] had not lived." [5]

References and Notes1. H. D. Thoreau, 1980, Walden Or, Life in the Woods and On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, Penguin Books USA, Inc., New York, p. 10.

2. R. B. Hill, 1998, Historical Context of the Work Ethic (available online at

3. S. J. Power, 1994, "Why Is the Idea of Working Less Such a Heresy to Americans?" Business Ethics, Vol. 8, No. 5 (available online at ethics/overwork.htm).

4. For more on changing the outdated scientific cultural system, see A. H. Kitts, 2001, "Career Selection for Women in Science: Is it really Hobson's choice after 30 years of progress?" AWIS Magazine Vol. 30 No. 2, pp. 21-22.

5. H. D. Thoreau, 1980, Walden Or, Life in the Woods and On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, Penguin Books USA, Inc., New York, p. 66.