Paul Blaschko is an assistant teaching professor in the Department of Philosophy and director of the Sheedy Family Program in Economy, Enterprise, and Society at the University of Notre Dame. One aspect of his research and teaching focuses on how philosophy can help us find meaning and purpose at work.
In this Q&A, he discusses our changing relationship with work — how we have developed an achievement mentality in the workplace, the causes and dangers of burnout and how the pandemic has upended our assumptions about work.
How is our relationship with work changing?
One of the things that really strikes me about work is that it’s kind of taken over so many different aspects of our lives that used to be separated out.
I think that when we look at what people are asking for from their work, and what they’re being asked to give to their work, this is a really distinctive moment in history. It used to be that you had neighborhoods, community organizations, your church — all of these really different places to go to find meaning, purpose, friendships and your sort of familial network or sense of community. Whereas today, I think for many people, work fills a lot of those different roles. We’ve invested so much in it — and we expect so much out of it — that we’re constantly having to navigate this really complex territory of what we should bring to our work.
Over the past 100 years, our relationship to work has changed dramatically and in ways that I wouldn’t have predicted. I often have my students read a speech by John Maynard Keynes, who in 1915 was looking at a possible depression in the U.S. He was looking at alternative forms of structuring the economy, and he argued that if we stick with capitalism, eventually we’re going to get to a point where we only have to work 15 hours a week and we can enjoy a quality of life that’s even higher than the one that we currently enjoy. Now, what’s really interesting about this is that his economic predictions were pretty dead on.
Keynes was right that we now have enough material wealth, enough automation in our economy to distribute labor so that if we wanted to, we wouldn’t have to work 40, 50 or 60 hours a week. And yet, if you look at the way that Americans actually spend their time, the amount of time that people spend at work continues to go up in America, especially for people who are in jobs where they’re making more money. You would think, intuitively, if you make enough, then you can sort of spend some more time and money on leisure activities. But people who have higher and higher salaries, they’re the ones who are spending 60, 70, 80 hours of their time at work each week. For me, this presents a really interesting puzzle.
What explains the amount of time and investment we are spending on our work?
One of the philosophers that I really enjoy reading in my class and thinking about on this question is Byung-Chul Han. He wrote a book called “The Burnout Society,” and his thought is, in maybe the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, we were living in a disciplinary society, a society where from the top down, managers, bosses, the government would tell you, this is how you’ve got to work. This is how we structure things. Things felt centralized.
He says we’ve turned a corner and we now live in what he calls an “achievement society.” So instead of having a boss tell me, you’ve got to produce, he says we’ve turned this corner and figured out that if I internalize that kind of motivation, if I am my own boss in a way, constantly looking over my own shoulder and thinking, man, I’ve got to do better, I’ve got to achieve more, I’ve got to get more status, this is overall going to lead to far more productivity, far more efficiency in the economy.
He says it’s kind of baffling that this is how we’ve developed. But, nonetheless, here we are. We’re in this world where we’ve internalized this kind of work ethic. And so, for my students, for my class, in my research, one of the big questions I’ve got is just where did that come from? And what do we do with it once we realize that we’ve internalized that kind of achievement mentality?
Do we endorse it and just say, you know what, great, we’re going to be the most excellent generation of workers ever? And, you know, that’s one option. We could do that. Or do we challenge that? Do we say, I think this kind of mentality is pushing me to bring parts of myself to work that I really would rather develop in community, in relationship with my family, in leisure or with friends? So just getting that kind of critical and reflective awareness, that is one of the big goals that I’ve got for my students and in my research over the next couple of years.
What causes burnout and how does it differ from other challenges and obstacles of work?
Burnout tends to affect care professions at far higher rates than other professions. For people who think of their work as a vocation, I think there’s a temptation to think about the challenges or difficulties associated with it as just part of the sacrifice. It’s like, if I’m a doctor or a priest, for example, this is my work, but it’s also my calling. And I think there’s a temptation there to push yourself beyond what you should reasonably do. There’s a sense of, how can you have work-life balance if your job is the salvation of souls? In those roles, there is no sort of stopping point. You can’t just hang it up at the end of the day. And that’s the flip side that I try to get my students to think about when they are articulating this desire to find meaning and purpose in their work and find a vocation. I think that’s wonderful, but I also want them to consider what that entails because, otherwise, it can lead to some pretty serious personal crises.
Has the pandemic accelerated the way our relationship with work is changing?
As a philosopher, I like to think of moments of crisis as opportunities for reflection. Alasdair MacIntyre is one of my favorite philosophers, and he’s got this idea that in moments of crisis, the presuppositions that have structured your life up until that moment are called into question. So, if you’re navigating your everyday life and some judgment that you’ve based on those presuppositions is called into question, you can directly engage with those assumptions and navigate that. But if the presuppositions themselves are called into question, you suddenly have to reevaluate the whole picture, right? And, for many people, that’s what happened during the pandemic. Things that we thought were just fixed — like you do work at a workplace and when you’re at home, you can just turn things off — things that felt like basic social realities we can rely on, it turns out they’re completely fungible.
And, I think, for a lot of people, it’s been difficult to navigate the different tradeoffs that you get in different working environments and situations. For the first few weeks of the pandemic, once we were working from home, I felt like, this is the best thing ever. I can just work for a bit, go downstairs to hang out with my kids to take a break and then go back and work. I thought, this is amazing; let’s do this forever. And then two months in, I realized I’m really missing the community and even just the basic communication that comes with being in a workplace. So, I started to see that as a trade-off. Well, OK, there’s a good thing here, there’s a good thing there — and they’re completely incompatible. You can’t have both of them. So I think, as these presuppositions are called into question, it has forced people to sit down and rethink what it is they value about work, what those trade-offs are and how they want to move forward.
Whether this ends up having a positive impact on our relationship with work individually and collectively going forward really depends on whether we’re able to start a kind of dialogue and communicate well with each other and with our employers about what we value and how this affects our well-being. I think it’s important to make sure we are communicating and reflecting on these trade-offs together.