Waitress watercolor by by massamitsu

To Work or not to Work: That is the Ethical Question

By Patricia Bruininks

I have a great job.  Of all the jobs in all the world, I truly believe mine falls in the top o1 percent (yeah, that’s right, I’m a 1-percenter).  Not because of pay, but because I find a great deal of meaning in my work.  As a college professor, I have the honor of teaching and mentoring young adults, guiding them to think about who they want to be when they leave Whitworth as well as what they want to be in terms of a career.  I get to share a perspective on the world that is new to most students, and I teach them skills they will use in their future employment.  But best of all, I get to be in school for the rest of my life, continuing to learn while getting paid.  And while the salary isn’t exactly through the roof (again, not that kind of 1-percenter) there are numerous fringe benefits such as getting to travel to Africa and study at Oxford.

It wasn’t always this way.  Recently I joined in on the #firstsevenjobs game, where you list the first seven jobs you’ve had on social media.  Having graduated college a little later than the traditional student, my list reached 12 before I even headed to graduate school.  Waitress, bartender, employee at Blockbuster, janitor and church secretary make up what I sometimes refer to as my “glory years.”  These jobs didn’t pay a lot, and I wasn’t particularly good at them. I did them out of necessity; I had young children to care for and I chose the best jobs I could do given my level of education at the time.  Overtime wasn’t necessarily enjoyable, but getting those extra hours always helped out with the bank account.

When we think about work ethic, we often think of the adult who works one or more jobs so she can support her family, pay all her bills, and live “responsibly.”  We strive to instill a work ethic in our children so they learn that while working isn’t always fun (and doesn’t always pay a lot), you show up anyway and do your best.  I worked hard and took pride in well-served customers, VHS tapes returned efficiently and to the right location, and church bulletins free of typos. And I learned a lot along the way, from how to deal with cantankerous customers to the art of mixing a mean martini.

As I look back on my early work experiences, I am grateful that I didn’t do them forever.  I was blessed with the ability and resources to get a good college education, which got me into an excellent graduate program (go Ducks!). But there are times when I look back on those glory years and see the benefits of that kind of work. No, I’m not delusional or being sentimentally nostalgic. Rather, I realize there is something those jobs had that my current one does not: the ability to psychologically detach from work.

Many of us have jobs that don’t end at quitting time. We take home our clients’ needs and concerns with us and mull over how we can do our jobs better while washing the dinner dishes.  We catch up on correspondence and reading before heading to bed. In academia there are always more programs to initiate, more scholarly articles to write, more teaching journals to read, and more students to meet with one-on-one over coffee. When I do take a break, say to watch an edifying television show (“The Walking Dead”), I find myself noting examples I can use in future lectures (there are all kinds of social psychology going on in the post-apocalyptic world).  In other words, it seems that I am always working and yet never working hard enough. It’s the price I pay for having a challenging career with lots of flexibility and opportunities for creativity.

While having a good work ethic still entails showing up and doing my best, it also means discerning when I’m going to work and when I’m not, since the factory whistle isn’t going to do that for me.  During the glory years, I didn’t spend much time at home wondering how I could deliver appetizers in a more timely manner or how to give a building’s tile floors a more lustrous sheen.  That didn’t mean I didn’t care about those things, but I was able to leave them at the office, restaurant, or video store.

Research shows that psychological detachment from work — both refraining from job-related activities and not thinking about job-related issues – is important for well-being.  Not only does it allow us to “live in the moment” while watching our kid’s soccer game; it also leaves us feeling more refreshed, which in turn results in more productive work behavior while on the job.  But this detachment doesn’t come easily.  Both internal and external motivators beg us to keep working when taking a break would be better. Ethics, or moral principles, take discipline, and sometimes they mean bucking the system.

The challenge now is to detach, and to detach well.  A little screen time is OK, but too much only leaves us feeling more drained.  Choosing restorative environments, such as fully engaging in a hobby or hiking in the woods, provide time for much-needed reflection.  This allows the inhibitory mechanisms needed for direct attention required by our jobs to be restored. Sitting on the top of a hill and taking in a 360 degree view of God’s creation, losing oneself in a gripping novel, or having a beer with friends during happy hour remind us that there is more to life than work.  And even if we are fortunate enough to have meaningful work, stepping away at predetermined times keeps it in perspective.

Sometimes not working is the ethical thing to do.

Join SpokaneFAVS for a Coffee Talk forum on “Work Ethics” at 10 a.m., Sept. 3 at The Community Building, 35 W. Main Ave. Bruininks is a panelist.

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