Work is punishment

I keep wondering why so many people put up with bad workplaces, bad bosses and bad jobs. Why are many people desperately unhappy at work (up to 50% according to some studies) but accept this as normal?

Here’s why: We’re carrying massive cultural baggage. Through much of Western history, there has been a sense that work is hard and unpleasant and that’s why we get paid to do it.

This is expressed most clearly in Max Weber’s biblically-based work The Protestant Work Ethic, which was used by Protestant preachers to preach that hard labor was good for people, good for Christian society, and a salve for original sin.

According to Christianity, humans used to live in the Garden of Eden, where everything was perfect. But because of original sin we were ejected and, according to Genesis 3:19, this is our situation now:

“By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

According to Hebrew belief, work is a “curse devised by God explicitly to punish the disobedience and ingratitude of Adam and Eve.” The Old Testament itself supports work, not because there’s any joy in it, but because it is necessary to prevent poverty and destitution.

The ancient Greek word for work is ponos, taken from the Latin poena, which means sorrow. Manual labor was for slaves, while free men were supposed to pursue warfare, large-scale commerce, and the arts, especially architecture or sculpture1.

So, according to our cultural roots, work is a curse, a punishment for original sin, and only for slaves. In short, life is hell—or “nasty, brutish and short,” as Hobbes put it—work is hell, and we must endure it because we’re all sinners but don’t worry, we’ll get our reward once we’re dead! Any questions?

It’s time to put that particular view of work behind us! Richard Reeves has this to say in his excellent book Happy Mondays:

Anybody who thinks work should be miserable simply because it is work or that there should be a cordon sanitaire between “work” and “life” needs to find a time machine, key in the year 1543, and go and join Calvin’s crew. They’ll feel more at home there. In the meantime, the rest of us will get on with enjoying our work, and our workplaces.

But we can never forget that we’re going up against thoughts and beliefs that have been part of our culture for centuries. This is why we need a conscious revolution in workplaces all around the world and why those of us who have chosen to break with the old attitude to work need to support each other.

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20 thoughts on “Work is punishment”

  1. I agree people are very unhappy when it comes to their work. It is sad to see so many people dread Mondays and look forward to Friday afternoons.

    We need to start a new era where people discover what they love to do, rather than get a college degree, go into debt tens of thousands of dollars, and then attempt to pay that debt off in a job they hate.

  2. I agree with Travis. What is even scarier is that I’m 4 classes away from a PhD and cannot find a job making more than minimum wage. After I complete my doctoral degree I will be $140,000 in debt. #LivingTheDream

  3. We need to stop thinking of the money. Perusing a dream job is often postponed or discarded for the lure of money. While we see the ones making the most money are those who peruse dreams, now that’s ironic!

  4. You are somewhat right about the Protestant work ethic, but I will mention the international Meaning Of Work (MOW) study.
    When asking around the world different cultures had many different perspectives and quite different priorities when they answered questions of what work meant to them. One of the important factors was as a forum for human interaction.
    But as you correctly deduct, the more a population answered that it was something they did to make money, the more alienated did they feel from their colleagues and their work place.
    As for contributing to society: That is actually quite meaningful for a lot of people.

  5. Alex

    I think that is a very useful insight and there is no doubt that this “baggage” shapes some of our attitudes to work. It is one of the reasons why I press for “work-life integrity” rather than “work-life balance” as the latter implies a scale with work as the counter to life. As the opposite of life is death, for me this is tantamount to equating work with death. Hardly an attitude that you would want to encourage!

    In fact work is an integral part of your life that consumes a considerable proportion of your “earthly existence.” Consequently, if you are not enjoying your work or doing something you hate you are actually doing yourself a major disservice and wasting your life. Work has to be part and parcel of enabling you to fulfil who you are, be of service and the “best you can be.” You are primarily responsible for ensuring this as it is your life and if you don’t you are robbing yourself. And a manager who fails to allow you to maximize your own potential is an accessory to that crime.

  6. yes there is a serious need of revolution in this ., the structure should be flexible for all the people

  7. “Chief Happiness Officer” makes people want your job. You left out the job description “undoing 2000 years of religious dogma.” It makes the position sound a little less appealing.

  8. Good article. If your job seems like punishment it’s a good sign you need to make a change to use your strengths.

    When we use our strengths on a daily basis we are energized, engaged, and contribute at our highest level. The work seems more like fun than drudgery. We owe it to ourselves to be the best we can be. When we do, the companies we work for benefit, shareholders benefit (through improved profitability) and society benefits.

    More here… http://bit.ly/mDde82

  9. I agree with the essential idea of the post. Just a theological point here. You write:

    “According to Hebrew belief, work is a

  10. Work is of the utmost importance and cannot be avoided. It is also biblical. However, I agree that we do our best work when our heart is in it. This happens by doing something we truly love and believe we were meant to do. I believe the key is finding that type of work.

  11. For me work was never punishment – just a constant challenge that I enjoyed. More so since starting my various businesses. I like your content and think my employees can use it :)

  12. Correction re your comment that “ponos, taken from the Latin poena, which means sorrow”. In fact, Ponos (Ancient Greek: ?????; “toil”/”labour”) was the god of hard labour and toil in Greek mythology. His mother was the goddess Eris (“discord”), and like the entirety of Greek mythology, this word predated the Latin/Roman.
    So for Ancient Greeks, ponos was the kind of hard work associated with tilling the soil, building, rowing ships, etc. You may note that in Modern Greek, ponos means pain!

  13. Mr. KjerulfI: it is so disheartening that people like you who I presume have no religious education venture into talking about a topic like work ethics and religion. To quote the religious principles of work in such a careless way is nothing less than offensive to all of us Christians, and to me in particular as a devout Catholic. For your information and that of all your readers and audiences, daily work is a way to sanctify your life, when you are aware that you are serving God in any place he has put you, and everything you do is to honor him and be a witness of His love to others through your reponsibility and integrity in work. That is the real principle that moves us Christians through this fallen world.

  14. Great blog. Not many people put conscious thought into what their daily actions and life amounts to. If one looks to create their own definition of work and set of rules, then it will be easier to detect when work has crossed non-negotiable boundaries and act accordingly. In essence, if a person begins to think like a business owner, then they will have an easier time letting unsuitable clients (or work) go, regardless of if they are considered an employee or not.

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