Domestic, Opinion, World — July 12, 2012 at 10:19 am

The Ethics of Work

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photo from Wikimedia Commons

Every week I scroll through the news and keep an eye out for interesting articles pertaining to Europe so that I’ll have something to scribble about when my CPR deadline rolls around. This week, however, what caught my eye was not any article in particular but rather a gaping and comical discrepancy between two New York Times pieces covering America and Europe, respectively. People often discuss the different mentalities that exist towards work in the United States and in Europe. Recently, the dichotomy between worker-drone-American and siesta-loving-European has been the subject of much discussion concerning the trans-Atlantic recessions. The relevant questions seem to be: “Are Europeans working hard enough?”, “Do Americans work too hard?”, and “Does a country’s attitude towards works affect its economy?” Before taking a crack at that one, let’s take a look at these articles.

The article covering America documents the transformation that has taken place in American hospitals: In the 1980s nurses were trained in-house, but, today, many already-employed  nurses are forced to return to college in pursuit of another degree. Jennifer Matton, for instance, who already has an associate degree in nursing, is now returning to school to receive a bachelor’s degree in the field at the behest of the hospital she already works at. Essentially, this is a story about this country’s obsession with nominal qualifications, and how it is making it aimlessly harder for Americans to survive in a field that they already work in.

The other article was basically the antithesis of the first.  The article discusses the Court of Justice’s, the highest legal body of Europe, ruling that employees who get sick during their annual vacation time are legally entitled to an additional vacation. The case came to the Court of Justice after Spain’s Supreme Court deferred ruling.  Ultimately, the Court of Justice concluded that workers have a right to a healthy lifestyle. “The purpose of entitlement to paid annual leave is to enable the worker to rest and enjoy a period of relaxation and leisure,” explained the Court of Justice.

So, while American companies are forcing their employees to go back to college in order to gain qualifications for the jobs they already hold, Europeans are maximizing rest and relaxation time. A little over a century ago, Max Weber postulated that capitalism thrives due to the Protestant work ethic, calling it “Christian asceticism”, which emphasized that discipline and restraint produced the hard work that is rewarded in a capitalist economy. This theory has prompted some academics, like Niall Ferguson, to claim that European economies will continue to suffer as religious observance declines. The argument goes that America is considerably more observant than Europe, making its economy more productive and vigorous.

Though this argument strikes me as academic, obscure, and unconvincing, it is a fact that Americans work longer days and more of them than Europeans — which likely affects the economy. That being said, the American obsession with work is, probably, part of the reason why Norway, Australia, and the Netherlands are ahead of the United States in the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which measures health, life expectancy, income, gender equality, etc. We Americans may be hyper-productive, but we have also had a  400 percent increase in the use of antidepressants in the last three decades, and our children are more than three times as likely as European kids to be prescribed psychotropic drugs. When it comes to work ethic, it seems that American’s have a more productive but vastly less healthy approach than Europeans. So, it comes down to a question of how we want to live, and striking a balance between productive and healthy that doesn’t leave us all reaching for the medicine cabinet.

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One Comment

  1. Striking a balance between productivity and life is a difficult thing to do but a worthwhile consciousness to keep. In many ways people who work too hard need to satiate pride or maybe greed or even running away from boredom! Some simple rules I keep, work 5 days a week, rest and enjoy family for one day and then have a day to commune with your God or with your Maker. This is a cycle that the body is meant to follow, but we do otherwise. None the less, I think to work hard and also have a siesta is one way of respecting the rhythms the body ia asking. You come out sharper after a 20 minute power nap.

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