Salon's Erin Coulehan calls work stress "the saddest American status symbol:"
It's no secret that our culture today prides itself on the amount of work we put into our jobs. We work to an excessive degree as if there's a competition to impress people by our willingness to take our work everywhere.
A new study sheds light on what seems to be an American obsession with being overworked and stressed out.
A Harvard Business Review report shows that a busy person is "perceived by participants to have higher status than the one with free time," indicating that "Americans seem to be obsessed with overworking ourselves in an effort to gain social esteem:"
The research suggests part of Americans' obsession with being overworked is an effort to seem important and gain social influence, which makes sense given the hyper-competitive system with which we're socialized. [...]
It's foolish to think we must unnecessarily burden ourselves in order to be effective, important, or relevant. Our time management skills should be adapted to include time for work and leisure, although doing so in the digital age seems nearly impossible.
"In today's America," the study points out, "complaining about being busy and working all the time is so commonplace most of us do it without thinking:"
If someone asks "How are you?" we no longer say "Fine" or "I'm well, thank you." We often simply reply "Busy!"
This is more than just a subjective impression. An analysis of holiday letters indicates that references to "crazy schedules" have dramatically increased since the 1960s.
"What has changed so dramatically in one century?" the study asks:
We think that the shift from leisure-as-status to busyness-as-status may be linked to the development of knowledge-intensive economies. In such economies, individuals who possess the human capital characteristics that employers or clients value (e.g., competence and ambition) are expected to be in high demand and short supply on the job market. Thus, by telling others that we are busy and working all the time, we are implicitly suggesting that we are sought after, which enhances our perceived status.
Veblen's theory that "leisure is a mark of higher status" is thus inverted, to the detriment of (nearly) all of us, as we become a leisure-less class of worker bees, consumed by busyness.