Must you be a ‘work martyr’ to change the world?

Occupy Wall Street activists ar Zuccotti Park in September 2011. (Flickr / Paul Weiskel)

Occupy Wall Street activists ar Zuccotti Park in September 2011. (Flickr / Paul Weiskel)

An article at CNBC this week described the phenomenon of “work martyrs,” employees who routinely work more than 50 hours a week, many without overtime pay. One Gallup poll found that four in 10 Americans work more than 50 hours a week, and that the national average work week is an astounding 47 hours. Chronically connected to email on their phones and laptops, 35 percent of workers, according to a Pew Survey, find their working days extended unwittingly. What’s more, researchers at Stanford University have found that few benefit from chronic overwork, even bosses: “Employee output falls sharply after a 50 hour work week, and falls off a cliff after 55 hours — so much so that someone who puts in 70 hours produces nothing more with those extra 15 hours.” Sadly, the phenomena of “work martyrdom” and its consequences don’t end in traditional office settings.

There’s a tragic irony in the willingness of progressive organizers to support hard-fought labor reforms like paid sick days and shorter work weeks while pulling all-nighters — either unpaid or underpaid — for a particular cause or organization, no matter how just.

In college, we played a game, often unconsciously, known as “misery poker” — a competition to, masochistically, determine who had the most tests to study for, papers to write, problem sets to turn in, etc. Similar dynamics play out in organizing spaces, complaining about how many hours of conference calls you’ve stacked up in a day, running between meetings or plugging hours into a planning document — in some ways as an attempt to prove to fellow organizers one’s unrelenting commitment to the cause, to “doing the work.” It’s no one’s fault, per say, just an unfortunate condition of organizing within an economic system that values a certain image of productivity that’s premised on the appearance of “hard work.”

The same logic drives tech start-ups in Silicon Valley and first-year Wall Street bankers to clock-in 80- and 90-hour weeks. Unsurprisingly, it seeps into our organizational cultures. The illusion, or even reality, of perpetual work isn’t only unhealthy, it also creates massive barriers to entry for all but a committed few. Google and JP Morgan recruit with the promise of six figure salaries that make people willing to sacrifice their sleep and personal lives. Having a good deal fewer figures — if any — to offer, the justification for “work martyrdom” becomes even more faint for those trying to build a mass movement. What we can offer, though, is a sense of community, purpose and belonging.

In the “Purpose Driven Church,” evangelist Rick Warren explains how he built a 20,000-person mega church, Saddleback, essentially from scratch. Warren’s motivation in building the church was to spread the Gospel to as many people as possible, whether long-devout Christians or secular newcomers. He outlines the questions parishioners ask themselves when deciding whether to commit: Will they make friends? Are they actually needed? What is the benefit in joining to them? What is expected or required of them if they join? Most people, Warren argues, are looking to meet basic human needs, to feel a sense of belonging and usefulness. As people with busy lives (full time jobs, maybe kids) they also want clear expectations for what sort of time commitment “joining” will entail. If what people see in the movement is a group of caffeine-fueled workaholics chronically hunched over their laptops, what image does that project to newcomers? It’s certainly not a friend group that’s easy to join, or a commitment that fits neatly within a 40 — or 47 hour — work week.

Granted, there are massive differences between building a mega church, working tirelessly to produce profit for any given corporation, and attempting to bring about a popular movement for progressive societal transformation. The “get shit done” mentality isn’t an entirely worthless one. The revolution will, unfortunately, be underfunded and very likely require more than a few sleepless nights, not to mention long work weeks. That’s also not to say we should be looking for ways to burn people out before the age of 40.

While we’re not yet able to — as Marx dreamed in “The Germany Ideology” — “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening,” and “criticize after dinner,” we can pull ourselves away from our email and out of a cycle of around-the-clock work. An experienced organizer I know once told me, “I only work 40 hours a week because I know too many [former organizers turned] organic farmers.” Certainly, we need organic farmers. But we also need organizers who can sustain themselves for the long haul.