Why are we so addicted to work?
Like many Londoners, I am all-too-familiar with working long hours. In my first job in consulting, I would regularly have to work past 10pm, sometimes into the early hours of the morning. I should have suspected something was up when, on joining the company, I had to sign something saying I was happy to opt-out of the European Working Time Directive. Little did I know what awaited me! I know my experience is far from unique. Some of my friends have had to regularly work all-nighters, only returning home in the early morning to get washed and changed, to then return to the office for another working day.
But why are we willing to work these ridiculous hours? Why are we happy to pour ourselves into our jobs, to the detriment of our relationships, leisure time and even our health? I think some of it is cultural. It’s the way we do things around here.
London feels different in this regard from the rest of the UK. Working long hours, being passionate about our careers and investing the bulk of our time into them feels normal. If you work here, you will naturally begin to follow this pattern. If everyone else is working late, you can hardly leave for the pub at 5:30pm each day, can you?
But is there something deeper? Is there something about our worldview that makes us willing to invest so much time in our careers?
For some of us, success has become part of our identity. We have constructed a narrative about ourselves—which others have reinforced to us—that says: ‘You must be successful. You must be an achiever’. We feel a pressure to conform or live up to this identity.
From my schooling, I can see how my identity became fused with hard work and success. I passed my 11+ and then achieved good grades in my GCSEs and A-Levels. People described me as hard-working (not clever—just hard-working!). It became who I was (or rather how I saw myself) and something to live up to. As I came to a new challenge, I would say, ‘I must do this well; I’m hard-working’, or ‘I must succeed; it’s what I do’. My achievements defined me. The idea of failing scared me.
This focus on success and achievement has significant downsides, not least the implications for the quality of our lifestyle and relationships.
One of my colleagues recently revealed to me that when he wakes up on a Monday morning, the first thing he thinks about is the key performance indicators he’s responsible for. Naturally, he doesn’t like how much work dominates his thinking and how it forms such a significant part of his identity.
But if we don’t want to base our identity on what we do, what are the alternatives? I think it comes back to your worldview, or rather, what you value.
If we subtly believe our achievements will bring us happiness, then of course we will pursue them to the full. You can tell what a person values by where they spend their money and their time. If you are happy to keep working long hours, perhaps it reveals something about what you value.
It was in my second year at university that I realised that achievements alone would never bring me lasting happiness. I experienced modest success; I started my own business and accrued experience for my CV, but I realised that, despite these, I remained as unsatisfied and insecure as ever.
It was around that time that I became a Christian. I already believed Christianity was true from investigating it in my teens (I came to the conclusion that Jesus was a real historical person who walked the earth, who died and was resurrected and was indeed who he said he was—God in the flesh), but had never wanted him to be involved in my life, as I was focused on achieving my goals.
As I turned my life over to Jesus and experienced a living relationship with him, my outlook on work and success were transformed. Previously I had undertaken my work to prove myself. Now I believed (and still do) that I was already loved unconditionally by my heavenly Father. This means I don’t need to prove myself through my achievements—I am already ultimately satisfied, both in the knowledge of my Father’s love and in finding my new purpose to live out my relationship with him.
The change was so great that my housemates at the time said things like, ‘Who are you and what have you done with the guy we used to live with?’ I cut down my work commitments. And I started to care more about others. I became more interested in their welfare and success, rather than just my own goals.
I still work long hours sometimes and enjoy my work. I find what I do to be a significant part of my life. But behind that, I am convinced there is a more significant narrative that says: ‘You have value apart from what you do; value given to you by your father in heaven who loves you.’ I find that truth incredibly liberating.
Questions or comments? Email Jeremy.
This was originally posted at on the Salt website. Salt is a small collective of friends seeking to engage with thoughtful Londoners on matters of faith and life. We are all part of Grace London, and each week we give out printed editions of the articles to commuters rushing through Waterloo Station. You can subscribe, follow, or like to keep up-to-date.