Business Warning: Work Ethic Is A Health Hazard

Leon Gettler

The Age 12/11/2000

Too much work is not only outdated, it's downright pathological, says author and inveterate bomb thrower Sharon Beder.

Work and production have become ends in themselves, resulting in the wave of stress, depression and insecurity that seems to be sweeping through sections of society.

It has also produced a new breed of executives on $150,000 a year who complain that they are ``time-poor''. And it exposes the hollowness of the work-life balance rhetoric that has so many people trying to juggle families and careers.

Rampant consumerism and wealth have not translated into more fulfilling lives. ``It's an irrational situation where people who have jobs are working longer and longer hours, they don't have time to do the consumption. When they do buy things, they don't have the time to use or enjoy them,'' Associate Professor Beder says.

``It covers both ends of the spectrum. The executives and professionals at one end who are not getting enough sleep or having time for relationships and families, and people at the other end with such insecure jobs, who are working long hours just to pay the bills.

``And then you have the unemployed with such low esteem because if you don't have an occupational identity, then you're low down on the social scale.''

The head of Science and Technology Studies at the University of Wollongong, Professor Beder has carved out a reputation as an environmentalist who is not frightened of questioning views that are widely regarded as sacrosanct.

Her latest book, Selling The Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR (Scribe) sets out to debunk the work-ethic mystique and examines how paid work came to occupy such a central part of people's lives.

The centrality of paid work, she says, is a relatively recent phenomenon. In days of yore, people worked enough to provide shelter and clothing, and put food on the table. If there was plenty around, they worked less.

The big drivers now, however, are the trappings of status - where you live, the car you drive, the school you send your kids to.

But all this rampant consumerism, she says, is not making people any happier. ``The increase in goods available to people today don't make today's generations happier than those 20or 30 years ago and, in fact, surveys show they are less happy.''

At the same time, ever-increasing production and consumption are destroying the environment, exposing the flaws in the dogma of sustainable development.

This was clearly shown when the 180-country talks at The Hague on climate change broke down last month because of so-called flexible mechanisms proposals that would have allowed the world's biggest polluter, the United States, to avoid keeping the promises it made at Kyoto in 1997 and cutting its carbon emissions.

``The planet can't take the continued production and consumption that is required to give everyone full-time jobs,'' she says. ``If we don't at least question the work ethic and we keep seeing work as such a central part of our lives and identity, then we are either going to destroy the planet or there's not going to be enough work to go around, and people are going to keep working really hard.''

She concedes the book does not offer solutions to the problem. It only raises the questions.

``Hopefully, it will get people talking and lead to the emergence of new values,'' she says.

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