The Overwork Ethic

By Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick

It’s three-thirty in the afternoon and as I sit down to a late lunch in my favorite midtown Manhattan coffee shop the man at the next table pulls a ringing cell phone out of his jacket pocket. “Hi, Brittany,” he says, staring down at his lentil soup. “Can I call you back in fifteen minutes? I really wanted to take your call but I’m in a meeting right now.”

We’ve all done it, right?

Still, digging into my chicken avocado salad, I was struck that it isn’t professional or acceptable to admit that one is engaged in the simple human act of eating a meal. Dare mention that you’d rather eat your soup while it’s hot instead of talking to a colleague? You’re sure to come across as a slacker.

I imagined how a caller might respond to a few other replies.

“I’m in Downward-Facing Dog.”

“I’m on the other line with my child’s teacher.”

“I’m praying.”

“I’m sipping Scotch from the flask I keep in my desk drawer.”

Okay, so the last one really is unacceptable. And yet why is it that we think of all of them the same way? Nobody wants to be that person in the office who always has a sob story and never gets the job done, but we’ve collectively gone overboard in the other direction. With workers chained to their cubicles as they compete in the 24/7 global marketplace, no wonder solitaire is the “most-used program in the Windows universe,” according to Slate’s Josh Levin, pointing out an interesting correlation: “Consider that the rise of FreeCell coincided with the erosion of coffee breaks, cigarette breaks, and lunch breaks.” After all, nobody can work all the time. How did it happen that every human activity except working — or at least appearing to work — has turned into a source of embarrassment?

Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, the authors of Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It, blame it on Sludge. Sludge is their word for the outdated beliefs about time and work dating back to the Industrial Revolution — the daily judgments, spoken or unspoken, that label us as slackers or failures if we do anything other than devote all our energy to putting in time on the job. (Isn’t Sludge a vivid name for the familiar old Protestant work ethic?) When we hide our real lives from the people at work, say Ressler and Thompson, it’s because we’re expecting to get Sludge hurled at us.

When we shift our focus from avoiding the dreaded Sludge to producing results, the authors say, we free ourselves up for rest and recreation and family and fun. Instead of doing time, we shape our day around specific goals and make it our business to bring energy and creativity to accomplishing them. In the process we recover our dignity and allow ourselves to be human.

A grace-filled approach, if you ask me. Imagine the day when each of us stops covering up and starts mentioning now and then that we do ordinary things like meditate and rest and eat lentil soup. Sounds like a recipe for cultural change.

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, sees couples and individuals in her private practice. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, and has a website at

Past Posts