On Work Ethic

Do you remember that time in your middle school history class (for those of us who were born before Clinton became President) when your teacher told you about the kind of people that founded this country?

It probably went along the lines of this: A guy named John Calvin espoused the idea that hard work and dedication to worldly good deeds would get you into heaven, instead of just praying really hard. The (Calvinist) Puritans, who defined this country’s early development, sowed that work ethic right into the soul of this new world as they sowed their wheat into the soil. That willingness to use lots of elbow grease is partly how this country grew up as fast and strong as it did.

I have gone through life assuming that this is still the case. To clarify, I was raised to do my best at whatever endeavor I undertake, and I naturally assumed that everybody else would do the same.

The Puritan work ethic, instead of being the rule, is evidently now the exception.

I’m pretty sure that this is just another big swing of the socio-temporal pendulum, but I can’t help but feel another blow to my already grievously wounded philanthropy. This is not the first time I’ve felt this particular sting, but it’s the first time I’ve felt the need to sit down and organize my thoughts.

Folks spend a lot of energy and words on the concept of brotherly love; we should all just love each other and all the world’s problems will fix themselves. As much as I want to believe that, it’s just not true. Not as an end in itself. Passive love is not what makes the world go round. We can’t all just sit around in a circle and sing and hug. It’s one thing to get along with those around you; it’s a completely different animal when you actively look after and support your people.

What really moves the world is when we help each other. That, I believe, goes hand in hand with the concept of a strong work ethic. We have to be willing to pull our own weight, sure, but we also have to be willing to pull others’ sometimes as well. My mother always used to say to me, “Kate, we all have to do things we don’t want to do. But we do them because it’s what we need to do.”

Her point was that we can’t be selfish. We can’t, as the song says, always get what we want. When the situation calls for it or when we are asked, we ought to do for other people, as long as it doesn’t put us in harm’s way. Because if we don’t, things won’t get done. Because if we do, then they will do for us when we ask. Reciprocity, I have learned, is the real lever that turns the gears of the world.

So I give of myself, expecting nothing more back than what I have given. Often I give more than is expected of me. Which is what I and a few others have been doing for the past week at my place of employment. Several of my fellow employees, their work ethic absent (or nonexistent), have repeatedly not shown up to their shifts. Our store is already understaffed, so this forces the same small group of employees (managers included) to work overlong and overhard. For the past two weeks I have been called in to work early, called in on my days off, called in to do the work of two people. Most of me does not mind, because I need the extra hours and the pay they bring. Also, I have the good fortune of working with a good bunch of folks (those who actually show up for their shifts, that is), and I know that they know the meaning of reciprocity. Plus, let’s be honest, I like being the one everybody knows they can depend on.

But there is a part of me that does mind. Not for myself, but for the rest of the staff that has a work ethic. It is not their responsibility to habitually pick up after those who can’t or won’t do their jobs. It is not fair to keep forcing them to work double shifts on busy weekends, especially when we are so understaffed that we basically have to stop serving people for as long as it takes someone to wash enough dishes, to cook enough food to get through the next twenty minutes (wash, rinse, repeat 20 minutes later).

We the few are pressed from one side by the omniscient corporate presence to keep up to the many (many many many) standards of a high-quality foodservice establishment. And we are pressed from the other side by customers, who expect us to deliver all of what the corporate machine promises them and more, with the ease and celerity of a magician’s sleight-of-hand.

Which is difficult already when we are fully staffed. But since we have lost several crew members to moves, school, etc. and several more to shifted priorities or just pure laziness, we the few are caught between one hell of a rock and a hard place. I won’t enumerate the effects of this constant and inescapably suffocating pressure, because I’m sure some of you know exactly what I’m talking about and what happens to people when they are in that situation and aren’t prepared for it.

But, you may say, the absent ones may have a good excuse to be absent. Yes, a couple of them did. I use the past tense intentionally. Severe illnesses and emergencies are legitimate reasons to miss work, and in that case I do not mind picking up their share of the work. That is part of reciprocity. That is part of what it means to be a productive member of any community. But to have to do it three and four days in a row is pushing it. We the few come to work when we’re sick even though we shouldn’t because if we don’t, things don’t get done and all of us get in trouble. I have even worked through hospitalizations of loved ones. Once I take a few hours or a day off to ensure they and everyone else close to me are taken care of and safe, I go right back to work. First because I have done all I can do, and the rest is up to someone with a medical degree. Second because not having something to occupy my mind and my hands would force me to dwell on my loved one’s ailment, and that is not good for my psychological health. Third because I have a job to do, and there are both written and unspoken promises there that I have to keep. I took a day off to settle my affairs, and my coworkers graciously covered for me. Now I return to work and soon it’ll be my turn to cover for someone else who needs my help. That’s the way any functional, productive community works.

We are social animals. We build social networks and we rely on those close to us for support; that is the only way we can thrive in a world that holds so many of us. To think that you can go on taking advantage of those who support you and never give of yourself is fundamentally stupid and bespeaks a near-complete lack of social intelligence. And this comes from a lifelong misanthropic introvert, so you better believe it.

Like any good debater, I understand that there are multiple facets to every situation. But I will not address the other ones here. I’d like to see other people’s thoughts on this matter. If anyone reading this has a good argument for another side of this issue or even their own take on my standpoint, please do post your own thoughts.