Changing Attitudes Toward Work

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Perhaps we should re-examine our relationship toward work, since this aspect of our lives relates closely to mental and emotional health, and not just to our standard of living.

We’ve all had this experience: We pull up to the drive-through window of the fast food joint; along comes some young person harboring an “I could care less about you and your silly cheeseburger” attitude underneath their plastic smile and pre-scripted but utterly meaningless “Have a nice day;” they completely mess up our order; they then act like we’ve demanded the moon when we ask them to fix it.

Working environments have definitely changed. So have attitudes toward work. But this is really nothing new. Every era of human history has spawned its own unique set of working environments, as well as some very different attitudes toward work. Presently, the world is in the midst of a widespread and fairly recalcitrant recession. The economic situation has not only produced some dramatic changes in many work structures and climates, but also caused many workers to alter the way they approach their jobs. And there is abundant research suggesting that how we view our work and the sentiments we harbor about it have a profound impact on our overall outlook on life and general level of happiness.

Work is unavoidable. Life can’t be sustained without it. But even though work has been our constant companion since the very beginning, our attitudes toward it have undergone a substantial evolution over the ages, varying considerably among different civilizations and cultures.

The Judeo-Christian “work ethic,” once dominant in the western world, has its origins in the Eden myth of Genesis. As the story goes, until they pit themselves against the will of God, Adam and Eve had only to “dress and keep” their garden paradise. The very character of work changed, however, after their transgression, and took on a new nature and meaning. Work was later typically viewed as both a curse and a necessary evil. And a person’s character was often measured by how humbly and willingly they took on the burden of work and accepted the obligation to toil not only for their own welfare but for the welfare of all.

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The ancient Greeks and Romans distinguished between the honorable and pleasurable work of war-making, organizing commerce, and engaging in the creative arts, all of which were the domain of free men, and the hard, manual, and disdained labor relegated to slaves. Some even viewed various forms of mental labor as somewhat beneath the dignity of a man of any significant means or status. Even working within a skilled trade was seen as being only moderately honorable, conferring on the tradesman a status somewhere between that of a slave and a free man of dignity. And the amount of leisure time a man had was seen as the surest measure of his success and character.

In the New World, however, some settlers regarded even day-to-day menial work as one of the most noble enterprises. And the Pilgrims regarded their communal efforts to adequately feed and house each other as one of the clearest manifestations of the purity of their faith. But it wasn’t long before well-educated Englishmen with a different sense of community-building felt the need to import slaves to do the necessary but mundane tasks. And in the era just preceding the great depression, a wide division in social classes developed between the barons with visions of building empires, and the poorly paid and over-worked manual laborers who built the infrastructure that made those empires possible. Still, by the time of the post-World War II recovery, the baby boom generation had found great dignity even in factory jobs that made it possible for the average and semi-skilled worker to enter the ranks of a rapidly mushrooming middle class, and enjoy an unprecedented standard of living.

Work has been with us since the beginning, but its character has changed for different folks and different times. So have sentiments toward it. And it’s truly remarkable how some work characteristics and attitudes have resurfaced and recycled from time to time. To me, it seems like we’re in an age analogous to the pre-depression period: a relatively small minority has the savvy, means, and power to make big things happen, and a disproportionate number of folks are relegated to more menial tasks that don’t really pay enough — even with two breadwinners in a family — to adequately support the lifestyle to which many had become accustomed. It seems like every new business that springs up is part of a mass-produced chain of enterprises with a few franchise or corporate heads reaping the profits generated by young and relatively unskilled laborers, often paid no more than minimum wage.

Sigmund Freud reportedly said that the truest indication of mental and emotional health is one’s ability “to love and to work.” But what if your work itself represents barely a means to survive, as opposed to a joyful way to use your talents and improve conditions for yourself, your family, and your community? There are a lot of people working very hard these days. But it’s up for debate whether we’re working sensibly and for the right reasons. We know that our attitudes toward work greatly influence our job performance as well as our overall outlook. And we also know that working environments contribute a lot to the kind of attitudes we harbor toward our work. Given the state of the world economy, and the challenge we face maintaining a decent and sustainable standard of living for the foreseeable future, it seems that the need to re-examine our attitudes toward work — its nature, its structure, its costs, and its rewards — could not be greater. I know how strongly I feel about this, and I often wonder how many others do as well.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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