Do You Prioritize Work Ethic Above Other Ethics?

We should care about people, not productivity.

In my first reflection on whether it’s possible that care workers could “care too much,” I argued that it’s not the feeling of care that’s at issue, but the attachment to the futures we imagine for the people in our care.

Now I call into question how much we care about work itself.

Our culture in North America is too invested in work, and that sets up workers for poor boundaries and eventual burnout. Hard work is expected, celebrated, and moralized as if our worth is tied to our productivity. Indeed, work ethic is valued above other ethics. (What about the ethics that are tied to friends, community and family? What about the ethic of quality over quantity? Why is the focus on how many people we help, and not how effectively we helped them?)

We see it in the ways that people are praised for consistently meeting deadlines, staying late, working through lunch, never taking sick days, or taking calls on their time off. We see it in interview questions. “Do you have a lot of energy?” a prospective boss asked me in a pre-screening call. “Tell me about your experience working in a fast-paced environment and juggling multiple responsibilities? Are you used to high caseloads?” (Seeing the red flags but needing an escape from another burnout job, I gave a tentative “Yeees” in response.) Seeking highly trained workers for undisclosed (i.e., low) salaries, employers list complex duties on descriptions for jobs that would be better split into two positions. (Ever read a job description and thought, you want me to do that and that? This list is still going?!)

Analyzing the rhetoric of job descriptions, I’ve seen that a culture of (over)work is even offered as a reason to join the organization. Note this introduction for a hospital job description:

We hear it again and again. From patients. From physicians. From nurses. From donors. There’s a spirit of relentlessness at St. Michaels Hospital. It’s a never-say-no attitude, a willingness to go beyond. It’s why St. Michaels is legendary for taking on some of the world’s toughest health challenges.

At one time in my life, these sentences may have inspired me. Now they make me tired. I don’t think you could ever pay anyone enough to be “relentless.” How can we be relentless and prevent burnout? I don’t know about you, but after a day of relentlessness, I have no more energy for the rest of my life.

There is no question that we face problems that require the passionate and persistent pursuit of solutions. I don’t object to hard work; I object to moralizing and celebrating hard work even as labourers work themselves to mental health crisis, stress disorders, illness and death. This over-valuing of the work ethic allows bosses (who are also overworking) to exploit the labour of workers while dressing it up as morality.

In a context of austerity for non-profits and the hustle for profit elsewhere, we don’t know another way of being. For those of us working in non-profits, we have the added bonus that the language of “caring” is used to extract even more work and compliance from us. Then, if we can’t maintain our health while overworking, we are told we are doing something wrong. What’s wrong is the expectation that care workers compensate for the shortage of resources with our own labour.

The message seems to be, “Care enough to work underpaid without complaint, but don’t care enough to feel pain for your clients.” How does it make sense to be praised for hard work, but be criticized for caring? When I hear burnout prevention advice from bosses to not “care too much,” they aren’t asking us to work less. They’re just asking us to not have emotions about it. They want us to do the same amount of (relentless) work, but to do it like a robot on a production line.

I suggest the opposite — keep caring, but don’t work so much. Care less about your productivity.

Whatever we do, it will never be enough to stop the gushing wounds we tend. But “enough” can’t be defined by what needs to be done but by the limits of what we can contribute while still maintaining our well-being.

Audrey is an educator, counsellor, and curriculum developer running her own business in Toronto. She writes about social services, mostly.

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