He Worked so Hard, it Broke his Heart…

In 2006, America’s greatest rock star, Bruce Springsteen, released an album of songs by popularized in the 1960s by Pete Seeger.  For Springsteen fans like me, who learned to read by poring over the liner notes from Born to Run and Born in the U.S.A., We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, was a bit of a departure.  So much so, that the album introduced many Americans to classic folk music songs, many of which were popularized by Pete Seeger.
In case you’ve never had the pleasure:
For me, the most poignant part of the song lies in these lyrics:
John Henry he hammered
in the mountains
His hammer was striking fire
But he worked so hard;
it broke his heart
John Henry laid down his hammer
and died, Lord, Lord John Henry laid down his hammer and died
Well, now John Henry
he had him a woman
By the name of Polly Ann
She walked out to those tracks
Picked up John Henry’s hammer
Polly drove steel like a man, Lord, Lord
Polly drove that steel like a man
Any sociologist can see the traces of Max Weber’s “The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” in the lyrics of John Henry.  “The Protestant Work Ethic” continues to be relevant, more than a century after it’s original publication.  The American worker has, throughout the current economic recession, responded to increased work and productivity demands by pouring more time into their work.  American workers eat lunch at their desks, check work outside of work hours, and expect that they will check work email during vacations.
The result might be a sense of increased productivity, but at the cost of declining energy levels and increasing stress levels.  In fact, recent research has shown that if we want to be more productive at work, we should start with a less intuitive approach: by increasing down time and vacation time, ensuring better sleep at night, and changing our perspective on what “successful” work looks like.  This might mean naps and “smart” structuring of work cycles (Florida State University scholar K. Anders Ericsson recommends sessions of 60-90 minutes of intense “work” followed by breaks and rest for “elite performance”).
Considering the increased scrutiny on work-life balance issues poised earlier this year, where women have been commanded to “lean in“,  men to “lean out“, to continue to have it all (or not), one can easily see tumultuous relationship that Americans have with work.
What are the main take home points for people who want to be productive?  We should leave work at work, nap during the day, and structure our days to allow for 1-1.5 hour sessions requiring intense focus and cycled with periods that don’t.  We should schedule walks and eat lunch away from our desks.  When we leave the office, we should go into a communications blackout, where we aren’t available for “work”.  As a working culture, we should embrace telecommuting and working from home.  We should also take our vacation days and sick days.
The next question is, what are the barriers to these? Obviously, the barriers are higher in some sectors.  But at DePaul, how can we increase productivity and happiness at the same time?  How can we be more relaxed in our jobs and do work-related tasks with more energy?

Author: Jessica Bishop-Royse

Jessica Bishop-Royse is the SSRC’s Senior Research Methodologist. Her areas of interest include: health disparities, demography, crime, methods, and statistics. She often finds herself navigating the fields of sociology, demography, epidemiology, medicine, public health, and policy. She was broadly trained in data collection, Stata, quantitative research methodology, as well as statistics. She has experience with multi-level analyses, survival analyses, and multivariate regression. Outside of the work context, Jessi is interested in writing, reading, travel, photography, and sport.

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