Stop telling people they are working too hard
“wow, you’re working so hard. Don’t you think you should take a break?”
Some variant on this is common advice today.
If we see friends or colleagues working hard, it is often our instinctual response to utter this phrase.
And while it’s certainly true the stress and overworking ourselves can cause problems such as burnout and dissatisfaction, reflexively telling people to work less is counterproductive.
Why working hard may be important
Telling someone to work less can be wrong because we don’t know the full context. We don’t know their motivations or what they are trying to achieve. They may work long hours because it is something that they love. They may find fulfilment through doing so.
We often think of ‘stress’ as something that is negative and certainly ‘distress’ is. ‘Eustress’, however, is “the positive cognitive response to stress that is healthy, or gives one a feeling of fulfilment or other positive feelings.” It is stress that pushes one without overwhelming them and has been positively correlated with life satisfaction and well-being.
Often it is necessary to work hard on difficult things to experience greater enjoyment later on.
What if we are working hard in the wrong ways?
Of course we must not neglect the possibility that someone is working too hard on the wrong things. Indeed, in today’s society, this is more often the way; we are very bad at realising and doing things that make us happy and lead to fulfilment.
Our problem is not that we work too hard, rather that we work too hard on things that don’t matter and don’t bring happiness of fulfilment.
When this is the case it is not beneficial to simply tell the individual to work less. Rather, we must understand their reasoning and, if we believe ourselves more appropriately informed (again something we must be wary about), we may try to influence the direction of their efforts.
For example, I have seen many students in Cambridge (myself included) give a disproportionate amount of importance to exams, greatly inflating their importance and the amount of happiness that they will gain from a good result and depreciating the amount of happiness they could gain from alternative objects of focus.
Yet simply telling some to ‘work less hard’ does not solve this problem. They need to realise this through their own experiences. At most you can attempt to guide them in this direction.
Why do we do it? — the crab mentality
As humans one of our natural instincts is conformity. Historically, the consequences of deferring from our tribes were too high, as we depended on their support for our lives. So we looked to fit in and encourage others to do the same.
The present-day consequence of this is that when we see something that goes against our societal norms we naturally resist it.
At times this may be appropriate. However, it is a societal norm to accept mediocre levels of happiness and fulfilment by settling for ‘safe’ jobs, relationships and daily activities that we don’t particularly enjoy.
While some would argue this mentality benefits society (I would argue the opposite), it certainly doesn’t benefit the individual.
When we tell someone to ‘work less hard’ we are, whether we realise it or not, asking them to conform to our societal norms. We have a ‘crab mentality’, whereby we try to pull down people who do things differently:
Next time you see someone that you think is working ‘too hard’, reflect for a second before you tell them not to.