Why Do We Work?

Why Do We Work

…why do we work?

Hit the alarm, brush our teeth, wash our hair, eat breakfast (or opt for a cup of coffee and rush out). Read an e-book or blog, listen to a podcast, make dumb faces at our pets, say a few mantras, and head out. (Or hit Online, for all working remotely.)

The 9-5 “rat race” may seem like a gruesome, tedious grind to some, but provide a sense of stability and comfort to another. Another day marks the start of a daily routine before heading for the metro or wheel.

Work hard, play hard…hard work and perseverance are often stressed in success. Overtime and overworking can be seen as a badge of honor in the corporate world, but when can it become detrimental?


Maybe we seek rewards in the form of accolades and praise. Maybe we search for purpose and meaning. Does a fine line or grey area exist between the two? Are there universal factors to career satisfaction?

Top-down and hierarchical organizational structures are slowly fading in popularity, as many businesses shift towards a more egalitarian, flat structure. More communication = more productivity?


So, why do we work?

Let’s define what constitutes as “work” first.

What Is Work?

In physics, work as an equation is force multiplied by displacement (W = Fs). If you move an object and bring it back to its starting position, no work has been done.

Work, at its core, requires energy. Tons of it. Whether that’s manual labor, mental stimulation, or social interaction, work combats stagnation—and ultimately inertia. To perform work, you require fuel.

If you’re working on an empty gas tank, that’s a recipe for burnout and severe long-term health consequences.

There is no substitute for hard work.

– Thomas A. Edison

Now, does work have to be paid to be considered “real” work?

Yes and no. Here’s why.

Labor—an alternative term for work—falls under three categories:

  1. Physical vs. mental labor
  2. Skilled vs. unskilled labor
  3. Productive vs. unproductive labor

The first two types of labor are fairly self-explanatory. The real debate happens with the final comparison, productive versus unproductive labor. Traditionally, any labor which adds value to the final product is deemed as productive, which can be said of most paid work.

What about household work, such as cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children? This is where the grey area sets in. Professor Marshall argues that all labor is productive and its productivity depends on its “relative scarcity in relation to its demand.”

Unproductive work can be attributed to deceitful acts done by charlatans and robbers, to obtain value through illegal or unjust means. Do the ends justify the means? What if someone stole from an arch enemy to donate to their favorite charity later?

Now, Why Do We Work?

One of the infamous 7 deadly sins is sloth. It’s a sluggish indifference or hesitation to work without a just cause. More seriously, sloth also entails the apathy towards oneself and others.

Sloth appears to be closely related to mental disorders such as depression and anhedonia. Voluntary unemployment can snowball into a more severe mindset of sloth and inactivity.

If we don’t act at all (express our imaginings either in work or a changing personality, so that we can learn and think again something better), we certainly rot.

– Brenda Ueland

Unemployment takes a heavy toll on psychological wellbeing. Endless job postings and interview rounds just to be rejected. The dreaded, “Thank you for your interest” email. Rinse, sigh, and repeat.

Without work, anyone could fall into a heavy fog of boredom and ennui. Work that incorporates our strengths and talents helps us develop a sense of identity and self-esteem.


There are 4 major types of unemployment: frictional, structural, cyclical, and seasonal—with the most common type being structural unemployment.

  • Frictional → self-imposed by workers who search for their best job fit
  • Structural → arises from an oversupply of labor compared to its demand
  • Cyclical → caused by natural peaks and valleys of the economy and business cycle
  • Seasonal → varies by demand for certain services depending on time of year (e.g. textiles during fall and winter months)

The Japanese NEET culture stands for “Not in Employment, Education, or Training.” Although the stereotype is a highschool dropout, many people who fall under the “NEET” category choose to do so because of cultural reasons (gender roles, religious beliefs, etc.), rather than personal reasons (lack of motivation, reluctance to employment).

Interestingly, around half (or more) of Japan’s NEET / Hikikomori demographic are believed to have a comorbid psychopathological disorder such as ASD, BPD, or ADHD.

It may be too harsh of a judgement to categorize anyone who willingly chooses to refrain from work as lazy or spoiled. Unfortunately, there still lies a huge stigma behind this anti-work movement.

The Effects of Positive Psychology on Work

The blossoming field of positive psychology suggests a fun (yet highly effective) acronym to combat workplace burnout and frustration: PERMA. This stands for:

  • Positive emotions → joy, happiness, peace, serenity
  • Engagement → flow state, concentration, energy, productivity
  • Relationships → family, friends, colleagues, therapists, counsellors
  • Meaning → purpose, drive, motivation, passion
  • Accomplishment → awards, accolades, achievements, goals

Wellness consultants and mental health experts often employ various methods that link closely with positive psychology. For example, some companies have open-office concepts to facilitate communication and engagement at any time throughout the workday. Others opt for “wellness” stations such as gyms and yoga rooms.

Human-centric mission statements and a growth-mindset company culture can further propel a corporate team to excel in their roles. Positive psychology acts as an underlying mediator and “glue” that holds a team together for years to come.

How Does Personality Link With Work?

People who score high in Extraversion (E), Agreeablenss (A), and Conscientiousness (C) typically report higher levels of job satisfaction and tend to sleep early, and rise early.

They often choose careers in mangement, sales, marketing, and entrepreneurship. People who score high in Openness (O) predictably choose creative fields, such as visual arts, filmmaking, graphic design, or writing.

On the flip side of the coin, people who score higher in Neuroticism (N) and lower in Agreeableness (A) report more career dissatisfaction and more inconsistent sleep schedules.

Typically, this translates to lower self-esteem and locus of control. However, this can be combated! People with these characteristics can find peace as a librarian, laboratory assistant, or a medical technologist.

At the End of Our Shift, Why Do We Work?

We work, because it enhances our sense of identity to become healthy, productive members of society.

We work, because the initial push to move drives more motivation to keep moving.

This is the real secret of life—to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.

– Alan Watts

References

Bozionelos, Nick. (2004). The Big Five of personality and work involvement. Journal of Managerial Psychology. 19. 69-81. https://doi.org/10.1108/02683940410520664.

Chirumbolo, Antonio. (2017). Personality and Work Behavior. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-28099-8_793-1.

Klinger, Ryan & Mallon, Mark. (2015). Personality and Values at Work. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.22039-4.

Robertson, Ivan. (1998). Personality and Work Behaviour. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. 7. https://doi.org/10.1080/135943298398736.

Spain, S.M. (2019). Leadership, work, and the dark side of personality. https://doi.org/10.1016/C2016-0-04263-8.