Finding freedom from the relentless cult of work

A man looking stressed at a laptop with spectacles

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The reality for many of us is that we spend far too long at work. The baffling part is that we’ve let it become the norm. Why is that? What does it actually mean for this precious life that we only live once?

A recent article in the New York Times, identified a segment of millennials (people between twenty and thirty years old) who have come to a point where the only way they can find meaning is from buying into a cult of relentless work. They encourage, support and hold each other in respect, based upon their capacity to work endless hours. But at what human cost?

If you feel caught up in this relentless cult of work – and probably not through your own choice, I hope I can share some insight and give a little optimism for a better future.

My personal perspective

I’ve witnessed a long hours culture in much of my earlier career in software development. The philosophy was ‘you will get this done by working harder’ – ‘smarter’ never came into it. I have been involved with ‘death march’ projects where we spent 100% of the time 90% done. We would fix one problem or issue, and then another one would emerge, and we would feel stuck and exhausted, but we were encouraged to make just one more push.

This was exacerbated for me by working in the financial services sector in the City of London where the culture of endless work is endemic and also because I was using my working life as a way of avoiding some quite problematic things in my personal life.

The root of the problem

Some leaders in this new economy have helped promote this culture by talking up their capacity to work eighty or ninety hours a week – perhaps even more. They present themselves as some sort of super resilient ‘Workinator’ by managing the amount of sleep they have, even cutting toilet breaks to rack up a huge number of hours in a week. Phrases like “do not stop when you are exhausted, stop when you are done” are enhancing this cult of relentless work.

That might work for them. But what affect does it have on you? When you are in the midst of a culture where long hours are seen as a badge of honour, it’s hard not to get sucked in.

The dangers of the ‘new normal’

Talking about the UK’s long hours culture, TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady commented “It’s nothing to be proud of. It’s robbing workers of a decent home life and time with their loved ones. Overwork, stress and exhaustion have become the new normal.”

There is a real danger in this. You are taking real risks with your life, risks that can have a lasting and negative impact. Some people can maintain this ‘adrenaline junkie’ workstyle for an extended period of time, and when you are younger you are much more resilient. However, it’s just not sustainable, particularly as we enter the 2nd half stage of our careers.

I meet people in their early forties who wonder why they cannot get married; wonder why they have not found any of the aspects of life which matter outside of work. These are classic symptoms of this cult of relentless work. It becomes a way of anaesthetising yourself to a whole set of other things that could be important in your life.

The fact that you do not have the relationship you want, or the money you want, or you are not living where you want. The fact that you do not have the freedom that you want, that, maybe, underlying all of this, your working life, worse still your life as a whole, is meaningless. You have substituted the ‘why’ of work for work itself.

Social implications

This has wider social implications too.  If someone is working an eighty-hour week then in theory they are substituting for two jobs of people working a forty-hour week. Most of the research demonstrates that our productivity in terms of decision making, quality of output and quality of delivery starts to diminish quite quickly after we have worked a forty-hour week.

So, we look at the productivity crisis in the UK and some of that is down to the fact that people are working extraordinary hours where they are creating low value added and they are not generating the opportunities for other people to work. Remember as we come into a world where automation increasingly dominates the office environment, even those working a hundred and fifty hours a week cannot outpace an automation engine.

Less hours, more value

What I see in more and more of the workplaces that I engage with, is that, what is most valued, is your capacity to be creative, to collaborate, to work across areas, to be inventive, to make the best decisions and to choose the right thing to do. But achieving this needs the clarity that space and time brings – something that’s just not possible with the slavery of the relentless cult of work.

In conclusion

The cult of relentless work wants you to work harder. Don’t. Don’t even just seek to work smarter. Instead, find a way to move from where work is the cult that you are signed up to, to a situation where you find freedom, joy and a sustainable workstyle. In so doing, bring all of yourself into that equation. Your mind; your emotions; your relationships and the spiritual creativity that every human being carries into their working lives.

Feed your newfound freedom by ensuring that what you are doing has a purpose beyond the day by day. It could be that the Portfolio Executive option gives you the lifestyle (and workstyle), that you’ve always wanted.

Why not find out more here?


Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.