Americans at Work: The God That We Worship

“When you don’t have much and you need to be at work, there’s no such thing as being sick.” – Scott Brooks

I hate masks. There I said it. I hate wearing them. They’re uncomfortable, hot, fog up my glasses, and they mess up my beard! They suck.

I am not, however, an anti-masker. I wore it through the entire pandemic (and continue doing so when required). It’s the right thing to do. Wearing them not only helps battle COVID, but it also shows empathy and concern for others. Wearing a mask also had some unintended positive consequences.

The BEST positive consequence? I hadn’t had a cold in over a year and a half! It was glorious! That all ended about a week and a half ago. I felt the all too familiar feelings slowly emerge – tickle in my throat, tiredness, and cotton in my ears.

Then it hit, like a ton of bricks! The Common Cold was back with a vengeance like vintage 1970s Ahnold at the gym.

Years ago, I probably would have gone to work sick. It’s as American as Apple Pie, no? In fact, it was reported in December of 2019 (the month COVID-19 emerged in our collective Zeitgeist) that 90% of Americans go to work sick! Yet, I decided this time I needed to put my money where my mouth was because since COVID-19 altered our world, I had preached to anyone who’d listen that people needed to STAY HOME when they were ill. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, so I called into work sick!*

*Note: I work for an “essential service” employer, so many of our employees never worked remote, or worked remote in a hybrid situation. I felt it important that I also went to work as a show of support.

So, while I called into work, I wasn’t happy about it. And I was fighting the urge to check emails, do some work at home, and answer calls – despite my energy being low, my throat and lungs being on fire, and my head pounding.

I asked myself why???? WHY???? No one was missing me. My boss was legitimately fine with me being home (and was leaving me alone). My staff were leaving me be to recoup. So, why was I feeling horrible about missing work?

I think this is something many Americans go through. It’s deeply American to go to work even when sick.

But why is this? One reason, I feel, is a belief that work is holy. This belief is deeply rooted in American culture. The Puritan (or Protestant) Work Ethic – the concept that labor, diligence, discipline, and frugality connect one to God – is alive and well. American Puritans believed that hard work showed God you were dedicated to Him and espoused your faith well. This has been passed on through the American consciousness ever since the Puritans arrived in the New World.

I want to make it clear that having a strong work ethic is not the issue. Hard work absolutely can produce a moral benefit and strengthen one’s character and individual abilities. The issue is treating work as if it were a deity.

Last time I checked, Billy Corrigan told me cleanliness was godliness, not working oneself to death. And what isn’t cleanliness? Working while sick. Sick is literally the opposite of cleanliness!

Work can be a virtue, but so can be leisure. A healthy person needs both. Aristotle, one of history’s greatest philosophers, agreed. It might be surprising to you, but he actually argued that focusing too much on work makes people worse human beings! He wrote in his Politics:

“But at present we are studying the best constitution, and this is the constitution under which the state would be most happy, and it has been stated before that happiness cannot be forthcoming without virtue; it is therefore clear from these considerations that in the most nobly constituted state, and the one that possesses men that are absolutely just, not merely just relatively to the principle that is the basis of the constitution, the citizens must not live a mechanic or a mercantile life (for such a life is ignoble and inimical to virtue), nor yet must those who are to be citizens in the best state be tillers of the soil (for leisure is needed both for the development of virtue and for active participation in politics.)”

Essentially, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Work is important but it’s not the be all end all. If we focus only on work, then we cannot partake in our essential duties, such as participating in the political system and leisure! YES! Leisure is important! Taking time for YOU and YOURS is more important to Aristotle than work!

This may be all well and good, but I want to return to the quote that started off this post.

“When you don’t have much and you need to be at work, there’s no such thing as being sick.” – Scott Brooks

Yes, America has a deeply rooted cultural attachment to working. Work is God. However, I feel equally important to this discussion is the opinion that America has historically valued the work, not the worker. America has historically valued capital over labor – so much so that Haymarket and Pullman are etched into our collective memories.  

Again, I want to make a point. I am not pro-labor at the expense of business. Capital needs labor, and labor needs capital. They are Yingying. However, when one is out of balance or valued more than the other, nature is out of whack and both suffer. And American (and Americans) have valued the end result of work more than the person behind it for far too long.

How do I know? Look at our policies. Look at our actions.

  • Ample paid sick leave is a pipe dream for many workers;
  • The USA is the only industrialized nation without a paid parental leave laws;
  • Conjecturally, I’ve heard many stories of employees still showing up to work with COVID symptoms when told to stay home (related to the absence of paid sick leave and managers pressuring them to come to work);
  • Also conjecturally, and it’s happened to me countless times, job candidates tell an interviewer “I never call in sick” to show how employers can depend on them are as an employee;
  • Leaders praise those who “burn the midnight oil” or work 50/60 hour weeks – “they’re so dedicated!;”
  • Americans refuse to take earned vacation time, letting it go to waste!

Want to know what people value? Look to their behaviors and decisions. Period. Americans overvalue work to the point of self-ruin.

America needs a Fifth Great Awakening. We need to ditch the God of Work, and embrace a balanced approach as taught by Aristotle. This isn’t something that will or can happen overnight. Hell, I’m a believer in a balanced approach, and I was pained for having to call into work when I was literally in pain!!! The only way this can happen is for leaders to advocate.

Leaders need to advocate for PTO and then be OK when their staff use that PTO – or better yet, ENCOURAGE your staff to use it! Leaders need to advocate for wellness and self-care policies. And leaders need to model the behavior. Don’t work until midnight and then question why your staff were working so late themselves!

While this is the humane, empathetic thing to do, it is also good for business, and employee development.

“Well-being is closely linked with health and productivity. Research shows that employees who are in good physical, mental, and emotional health are more likely to deliver optimal performance in the workplace than employees who are not.”

Ultimately, calling in sick was tough, but I did it. And I am happy to report I only checked email until 9:00 a.m. I answered a few high priority items, and then realized… I was the priority. I turned off the work laptop. I put my work cell out of reach. And I took a nap. It felt great.

My Great Awakening has begun… and I plan on modeling this behavior no matter how difficult it feels to me. Advocating for the American worker to have access to wellness and health is no small thing.

Published by Paul LaLonde

Husband. Father. Passionate about HR, helping people, and doing the right thing. Also, heavy metal, craft beer, and general nerd things! #SHRM19Blogger. Find me on Twitter at @HRPaul49 and LinkedIn. Thoughts, views and opinions on this site are solely my own and do not represent those of my employer or any other entity ​with which I have been, am now, or will be affiliated.

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