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The disadvantages of hard work.


If you have arrived at this page, you may well be asking "why?". In fact, "Why does someone want to write about the disadvantages of hard work, when we are all told incessantly how beneficial it is?"

I conducted an experiment. I entered the terms

"hard work" disadvantages
into http://www.google.com/ (try it for yourself) and found over 21,000 hits.

I then rephrased my question and entered

"disadvantages of hard work"

into Google and got precisely zero hits. No-one on the entire web, it would seem, has written this phrase. Why not? Clearly it is "culturally verboten".

I was motivated to ask this question of the search engine, as, after many years of teaching in the University sector, I have met a significant number of people who I consider have been significantly damaged as individuals by subscribing to the "hard work is necessary" hypothesis.

So let us put the record straight here, and spell out some of the advantages of working just sufficiently to satisfy the various criteria of emotional and spiritual need, the demands of the job, the necessity of keeping body supplied with food clothing and shelter, and the social requirements of interacting with others.

Case histories

Among the people I have observed who subscribe to the "hard work is good" hypothesis are several University academics whose ability to think clearly, and administer effectively, are adversely affected by their permanent state of tiredness. Often, these folk feel the need to intervene when it is inappropriate. People like this generally are unhappy with the status quo, and feel that any change or intervention is bound to be for the better.

Among the students I have met, there are significant numbers whose ability to learn and retain information, let alone process it effectively, have been compromised by years of being forced to acquire unnecessary skills and learn unnecessary facts; I maintain this has actually physically damaged their brains, and that an enlightened court of law would award them damages against their educational institutions. Often, this kind of mental overload seems to be a prerequisite for admission to the course being taken.

At Berkeley (Uni Calif) in the 1960s I noticed that the ability of overworked students to express themselves clearly in spoken English was severely impaired. This was confirmed in the early 1980s when a telephone conversation with a Physics grad student in a Californian University had to be abandoned as the person in question could not communicate fluently. It is also noticeable that overworked students cannot sequence or recall simple facts like names, addresses, and telephone numbers with accuracy. Neither can they spell accurately or proof read what they have written. They also try to "rote learn" ineffectually, as they cannot repeat accurately what they have just seen, read, or heard.

Among the medics I have met, there are a significant number, likewise, who "do what they do, regardless" - thus if you go to a physician you get dosed up with drugs; to a surgeon, you get cut open; in fact, each specialist tries to fit your ailment into his own field of competence. This activity is unrelated to the needs of the case.

Among the politicians I have known, the greatest damage to society is caused by those people who regard themselves as the greatest "movers and shakers". Moreover, there is a class of commentator that regards the activity of "moving and shaking" to be intrinsically beneficial, without regard to the end effects.

Choice in the marketplace

Much of the excessive pressure to work harder, to produce more for less, and to drive staff harder is justified by the mantra "choice for the consumer". It is a psychological observation that given excessive choice, the majority of people have extreme difficulty in exercising it and arriving at a rational purchasing decision. Supermarkets should note this. It is far easier to choose from a limited range of goods than from acres of produce spread out among miles of shelving.

The same observation applies to the motivation of students on modular degree courses. Excessive choice leads to a shallow educational experience. It is also somewhat demotivating for the student. I am often asked to delimit my course materials so that the student knows what is not to be covered in the exam tests.

Feedback regulation

There is a report at www.discover.com that the brain (specifically, the left pre-frontal cortex) undergoes structural changes on long exposure (many years) to stress such as overwork. This makes the brain's owner more disposed to see the negative side of events, rather than the positive. One can see a certain amount of self-regulation here, for positive disposition in a person predisposes him/her to work harder. We can also identify the scientific reasons for negative reactions to excessive perceived stress and the onset of depressive illness caused directly by being subjected to a heavy workload.

Optimum range of workload

It is apparent that most people have a range of demand that they can tolerate, or even feel comfortably happy with. Below the lower limit they feel discontented and under-utilised, and above the upper limit they seek to shed work and may even become bad-tempered. An attribute of people who rise to high positions within their organisations is that they are very tolerant of a wide range of work demands; they find occupations for themselves if lightly loaded, and they are benign under pressure, even if it is unreasonable. For this reason, they are candidates for promotion.

Shared views

The tenor of this argument is shared by Prince Charles in a report in the Guardian newspaper on Tuesday 13th Sept 2005.

D.Jefferies email
31st January 2006.