Cultures turning into cults

Ruben Ferreira with a letter from our July/August edition.

16 June 2022

Work is a core part of our lives. We spend a great amount of time at work, challenging ourselves and making sure we do a good job. Thus, it is crucial to find your calling, follow your passion, because when you do, work is no longer just a job – it is a fulfilling experience full of meaning and joy, you will never work the rest of your life. 

So goes the mantra, but this is one of the largest frauds in modern societies.

Traditionally, jobs have been a means of production with clear value that provide for the needs of a group. Thanks to the technological advancements and higher accessibility of education, this mentality has shifted into something that is more individualistic centred. Now we talk about careers – work is no longer just a means to put food on the table, it is the path of our professional lives. We can also see this in the current job-hunting market as well: employers are not only looking for experienced workers but also those that align with their values (standards of attitudes, behaviours, and principles) and are good ‘cultural fits’.

We have reached a point where work cultures are turning into cults, especially for careers that are more ‘passion driven’ and their work output is less tangible (e.g. white-collar jobs). There is social pressure to talk about work during leisure time, being busy is a prestigious status, and working overtime is celebrated. Derek Thompson, writing for The Atlantic in 2019, described this cult-like mindset as ‘workism’ – the belief that work is not just necessary for economic growth but is also the raison d’être of the individual, and more work is perceived as both an outcome and a reward. This is also more commonly known as ‘hustle culture’; work is embraced as a lifestyle where people ‘grind’ for a goal, except the grind itself becomes the goal, it never stops.

Workism can affect anyone and not just lower-level employees in small businesses, such as video game developers in large successful studios and Elon Musk himself, admitting having worked 120 hours per week and stating that if you want to ‘change the world’ you must work a minimum of 80 hours. Yet increasing the number of work hours does not increase productivity – according to OECD figures the most productive countries do not have the busiest workers

When employees are expected to have the attitude and responsibilities of a stakeholder but without any of the support and associated benefits, the workforce is bound to be burnt out (a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that is not well managed); indeed, we are already facing increases in burnout. Based on Dr Alok Kanojia’s research on burnout and experience as a business consultant, he states that most employers are reluctant to address the root causes of burnout, prefer to pretend to address them. The responsibility of fixing it is being solely placed on the individual, despite, ironically enough, employers seemingly not fully realising that burnt out workers are less productive. On the other hand, some workplaces do try to improve the wellbeing of their workers, such as by embracing uncondensed four-day working weeks for example. They are the exception.

What can psychology do to prevent and stop this insidious problem? As clichéd as it sounds, I believe education is the best long-term solution, but this presents its own challenges. Simply producing and sharing scientific papers does not seem to be enough. Those courageous enough to take up this challenge must realise that they are tackling harmful work cultures which are deeply ingrained in many workplaces and societies.

Ruben Ferreira

Research Assistant, Nottingham Trent University