Some years back, I had a good friend who worked on another team within my department. We did a team-building exercise that included the Myers-Briggs personality test. I had taken the test once before, about 10 years prior. If anything, I had become a stronger ISTJ than I was the first time I took the test. We then had breakout sessions for each of the 16 types. I saw Imani in my group. I jokingly called her my “twin,” in spite of me being almost 7 years older.

We had known each other prior to this, but only casually. A couple of weeks later, we met up for lunch. In that single hour, we found we had a ton of things in common. I said, “wow, we really are twins.” From then on, we met for lunch a number of times.

One time, she told me she was talking with her mom about our company’s retirement plan options. Imani said, “Don’t think about it too much, Mom. I’m a WTD – Work till Death.” I said, “I’m stealing that one!” This was about 9 years before I would start my own business. Even then I suspected I was a WTD.

Our WTD jokes were purely financial in nature. But the concept also speaks to a larger cultural question about work, and how situations like the current pandemic get worse because of some of our practices.

Illness Concerns

An estimated 32 million US workers get no paid sick leave time. These are also the workers that make the lowest salaries. They have the poorest health insurance coverage if they have any coverage at all. If these people come down with coronavirus, they are far more likely to come to work anyway, not wanting to lose that precious income.

Beyond coronavirus, these employees fear getting fired for taking any time off for any reason. Even though the economy is in good shape, they know there is a “You can be replaced” mentality with management. 

Policy Concerns

This situation is in place, of course, to lower company costs. That drive to lower costs is usually motivated by a desire to have the absolute maximum amount of money paid to company executives and shareholders (for public companies).

In today’s environment, companies simply must churn out the absolute maximum for the execs and stockholders. If someone can determine that there was a single penny available that didn’t get to those 2 groups, someone in those groups is going to move heaven and earth to get a person or group of people fired for gross negligence in leaving that penny for someone else (and of course, “someone else” is the rank-and-file employees’ wages or the customer’s prices).

It has not yet occurred to most corporate execs and hedge fund managers that just a little less profit in raw dollar amounts, with increased employee benefits and possibly lower prices, will result in more money in their pockets. Paying people a decent wage, and providing simple benefits like paid sick leave, is going to send productivity through the roof, and the little amount of money deferred in the current period will be more than made up for in future periods – and it will be consistent, unlike the temporary fixes of mass layoffs/severance packages or wage freezes.

At any rate, the shortsightedness of trying to maximize profit by not providing basics like paid sick leave has disastrous consequences, both in times of extreme health risks like coronavirus and in regular, day-to-day operations. Workers in these jobs can’t afford to not get their full paycheck. So, they will come to work when they are too sick to be there. Simple colds, serious bugs like the flu or pneumonia, will spread faster because the sick worker believes (s)he has no other choice.

Cultural Concerns

If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard some corporate talking head say “work/life balance,” I’d have enough money to buy myself an island. Like Hawaii. As much as they spew these tired, old clichés around, the typical US company still promotes the concept of work being more important than anything like your spouse or your kids.

Think about it – who gets the big promotions? The people who everyone knows makes him/herself available 24 hours a day. The people that are replying to emails and forwarding the needed document at 2:30 AM. The ones who do this after spending 10-14 hours in the office. The people who are every bit as addicted to work as the people residing in the halfway house are addicted to drugs. The more hours a week we work, the louder we brag about it. Taking time off is viewed as something you only do as a reward for a major achievement.

What Can We Do?

In reality, time off is an essential ingredient of achievement, not the reward after achievement.  However, large segments of the industrialized world actually legislate against the long work week.

As Geoffrey James, Contributing Editor at Inc.com said: “In six of the top 10 most competitive countries in the world (Sweden, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, Denmark, and the United Kingdom), it’s illegal to demand more than a 48-hour work week. You simply don’t see the 50-, 60-, and 70-hour workweeks that have become de rigeur in some parts of the U.S. business world.”

James also writes, “Average bosses see business as a conflict between companies, departments and groups. They build huge armies of “troops” to order about, demonize competitors as “enemies,” and treat customers as “territory” to be conquered.

Extraordinary bosses see business as a symbiosis where the most diverse firm is most likely to survive and thrive. They naturally create teams that adapt easily to new markets and can quickly form partnerships with other companies, customers … and even competitors.”

Hope for Change

If nothing else, at least people are talking about the workaholic culture. We can hope this leads to change. As I’ve written about the imbalance in the distribution of profits, we need a few big businesses to go first. Over time, being new and innovative was replaced by doing what everyone else does. Once a few brave groups move to reverse the trend, we should see some massive change, with fabulous results.

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