Americans’ obsession with work permeates the entire culture. Our society thrives on it, celebrating grueling hours, constant connectivity, and the idea that work is the most essential aspect of our lives.
Citizens pride themselves on work to the detriment of everything else. Long hours are celebrated while mothers who need to opt out of work to care for children are derided.
Our dysfunctional work culture elevates labor above all else: relationships, well-being, and even self-actualization.
What is American Work Culture
Work culture encompasses the relationship society has with work. It considers governmental policies concerning employment, labor practices, work-life balance, and general attitudes surrounding work.
American culture elevates work above all else. Americans are in love with it.
We don’t work to live – we live to work. We boast about our crazy hours, define ourselves based on our occupations, and look down upon others we feel don’t “work as hard.”
The image of the hard-working all-American man is ingrained in our cultural psyche as something to aspire to. Being a hard worker is one of our nation’s core values.
Our cultural norms praise work for work’s sake and scoff at ideas that benefit employees or minimize labor’s importance.
Where Did This Obsession With Work Come From?
Work culture develops through years of policy, programming, and union battles. Although it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact reason for America’s obsession with work, we can point to a few American values that assisted in its development.
Just World Fallacy
American work culture results from a just universe worldview. Too many Americans get caught up in the idea that the world is fair. If you are a good person and do good things, the world will reward you because that’s only fair.
The problem with this idea is that the world is not fair. It doesn’t reward people for being good, and it doesn’t punish people for being bad. It keeps turning, oblivious to whether someone is “good” or “bad.”
The idea of a just world keeps many Americans trapped in the insidious work culture. If you genuinely believe that the world rewards good people and punishes bad people, you will work as hard as possible to prove that you are good and deserve rewards. Because if something awful happens, like you lose your job and can’t pay your bills, you must be bad.
Nobody wants to believe they are bad, so they keep struggling, giving more and more, and accepting that they don’t have much to show for it.
The worst thing about this is that they’ve bought into this culture so much that they refuse to vote for policies that would provide fundamental positive changes in their daily lives. Bad people don’t deserve help.
A uniquely American ideal puts individualism above all else. Anything that suggests you didn’t get by on your own merit is taboo.
Social programs are frowned upon because everyone should “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” The crowd screams “personal responsibility” to anyone who falls upon rough times or seeks help.
Although there are merits to individualism, American culture takes it too far. It’s every man for himself, with no thought of banding together to fight injustice in the system.
When one rises to the top despite all odds, they’re celebrated as an icon of American exceptionalism, with everyone pointing to them saying, “If they can, you can too,” seemingly oblivious to the definition of “exceptional.”
We reject community, the fundamental characteristic that allowed humankind to rise in the first place.
America’s Work Culture Hurts Everyone
The obsession with work comes at a tremendous cost to most Americans. We are overworked, underpaid, and stressed out with no free time.
And the worst part is that we eat this up!
We add ping pong tables to offices and call it a positive team culture while at the same time expecting employees to sacrifice every aspect of themselves to “foster corporate values.”
Here’s a look at two significant ways America’s toxic work culture hurts people.
An enormous impact of American work culture is that it stresses us all out. Americans are riddled with stress-related illnesses (that we don’t have the proper healthcare to treat correctly, but that’s a different story!)
Anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and heart disease run rampant in our society.
Not only is working long hours stressful but being trapped in a job is also stressful. You could argue that people “trapped in jobs” are lucky even to have jobs – and while it’s true that it’s great that they can support themselves, it’s also true that nobody should be stuck in an unhealthy work environment just so they can survive.
It’s all about the company and the bottom line in the US. Workers are treated like replaceable cogs.
Lack of Time
Another reason for stress is that we are working so much that we don’t have the time to do anything to relieve it. Exercise reduces stress levels, but who has time for that when you are working 80 hours per week just to keep the bills paid?
We also eat fast, unhealthy foods because who has time to cook healthy meals?
This lack of time also leaks into every other aspect of our lives and leads to a lack of social life and ambition.
The standard retort is just to work harder, increase your skills, side hustle, and do all these things to better yourself. But those helpful pieces of advice don’t consider that there is not enough time in the day to do those things when you are stuck in a system that wants to work you to death.
Should people be forced to sacrifice the paltry few hours they get at home each night to side hustles just to get by?
Some people work so much that they are too tired to work on side projects when they get home, and others want to spend their little free time with their loved ones.
Unfortunately, American work culture frowns upon both of these options. Hustle Culture tells us that if we aren’t spending our entire waking lives working, we deserve to be poor!
Our lives shouldn’t be about working so much that we have no time to enjoy anything. Life is for living.
Why is Our Work Culture so Horrible?
It sounds like I’m bashing Americans here, but I’m not. Most people don’t want our work culture to be this way.
It’s turned into this mess because so many Americans don’t have other options. It’s either give in to this abusive work culture or go hungry; break your back working for a company, or be homeless.
What kind of choice is that?
We choose to get in line so we can survive. What other options do we have?
At the end of the day, we must do what we must to get by. And for millions of us, that means embracing the American work culture.
We can go on and on about the problems in America’s work culture. But instead, let’s think of ways to fix it.
What is A Good Work Culture?
Before we can even begin to change the culture, we must agree on what a good culture should be. What cultural values should we maintain in our work culture, and what needs improvement?
A good work culture includes a work-life balance and decent employee pay. It’s also one that prioritizes people over everything else. It’s a culture where employee engagement is high because employees feel valued and supported.
Why Balance Matters
One of the most important things we could do to change our beliefs about work is to find balance. That means more time off – whether in shorter workweeks or more vacation time. It also means more flexibility in scheduling options.
With so much technology available for remote work, everyone doesn’t need to be in the office simultaneously every day. Why not let employees work remotely, come in later on some days, and leave earlier on others?
Balance is important because it allows people to enjoy their lives outside of work. Having more free time to explore passions, spend time with family, or care for yourself would make employees more engaged and happier overall.
It’s a win for everyone.
Pay Needs to Keep Up
Another thing that would significantly improve our work culture is increasing wages. People must be compensated fairly for their time.
Pay increases would allow people to save money and exit the workforce sooner.
Consider how happy people would be if the standard retirement age decreased to 55 or 60 rather than increased yearly. People could work for thirty years and retire while still capable of enjoying their remaining years.
Of course, our toxic work culture prefers to have everyone work until they’re physically incapable of working anymore.
The only option for retiring that early and enjoying the rest of your life is embracing the FIRE movement, which is a pipe dream for most. How many would choose that as an option if they could afford it?
We could consider drastic changes instead. We could decouple work from the minimum amount of money needed to survive with a UBI. A bit of breathing room would go far in alleviating the stress on American workers and changing our work culture for the better.
The best way to change our insidious work culture is to shift our mindsets toward people.
Humanity is more important than profits. Workers are more important than the companies that they work for.
If we start to put people first in everything we do, we will see a shift in our culture toward that mindset.
It’s not difficult to ask. We can put people first in our daily lives. Start being more empathetic towards retail workers and servers. It’s not their fault that their store won’t honor your coupon or have your favorite product in stock.
Next, we could vote with our dollars by supporting companies that offer balance and high pay to their employees. Here’s a start -a list of ten companies that treat their employees well. Support these companies, and stay away from companies that treat employees poorly.
Sometimes, the only thing large corporations see is dollar signs, so they may decide to change if they know that it’s not profitable to treat their employees poorly.
Finally, we could demand reform. We could vote for policies that would help people. These would give people options like healthcare reform, tax policy reform, and social program reform.
If workers had options, companies wouldn’t be able to abuse them.
Work Cultures in Other Countries
Before you say that instituting these things is impossible, or that spending all of your free time working is just part of life, look at what some other countries do.
Many of our friends in Europe have policies that promote work-life balance and the happiness of their citizens over profits. It can be done if we want it badly enough.
It can go the other way as well.
Japan has an even more drastic work culture than the US. Workers there also pride themselves on their insanely long hours and are expected to spend their “free time” socializing for the company. The Japanese work so much that it’s killing them, and they’ve even devised a term for it: Karoshi. It literally means death by overwork.
Positive Things About American Work Culture
America likes to sell its toxic work culture by promoting the American dream myth. It’s the idea that everyone has the opportunity to work hard and achieve their life goals.
The myth keeps us engrossed in our work culture. It keeps the peasants on the bottom fighting for scraps and promoting a flawed system on the off chance they, too, might make it to the top one day.
In reality, it’s harder than ever for the poorest Americans to rise to the top.
Some say America’s work culture inspires innovation. However, that’s only true for those who can already afford to be innovative. Most people are too busy working to survive to develop new technologies, create new art, and solve humanity’s most pressing questions.
When you dig deep, the upsides aren’t real. I’d rather we have policies in place that take care of our citizens first and allow everyone to pursue the lives that they are passionate about.
Given the opportunity, most people would rise up and become the best versions of themselves. Our toxic work culture holds them back.
Melanie Allen is an American journalist and happiness expert. She has bylines on MSN, the AP News Wire, Wealth of Geeks, Media Decision, and numerous media outlets across the nation. She covers a wide range of topics centered around self-actualization and the quest for a fulfilling life.