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‘Grind’ Culture Isn’t Cute — It’s Dangerous

How Productivity-Worship is Destroying Us

Joe Duncan
Feb 25, 2020 · 14 min read

“Rise and grind, it’s time to get this money!” said Reggie, as he sent out his morning texts every morning. Reggie is the area manager of a cell phone operation in the greater Los Angeles area and he makes sure to send out a morning text every morning at 7:30 a.m. to wake his staff and get them pumped for the day, prepared to drive, to go, to win, and to succeed. The messages, like many other technology teams’ messages, are sent over text messages in group chats that go to the cell phones of every employee, meaning that if you work for Reggie, you’re never “off” and you’re, in a very real way, always working. Sometimes, employees will be asked questions when they’re enjoying their limited time off and be expected to answer them at a moment’s notice. Workplaces can demand that you be “on-call” in America and they expect that you’ll remain local, near your workplace, but do not expect you to ask for any pay for this — they just expect you to hang around in case they need you, nevermind going off and enjoying a day at the beach.

Death at Amazon

In 2019, Billy Foister was a 48-year-old worker at an Amazon factory when, tragically, he suffered a devistating heart attack. At 6'3" tall, he could only hope that one of his coworkers would see his massive body laying helpless on the floor of the warehouse and call 9–11 to get paramedics on the scene as soon as possible. But the work environment was so incredibly toxic, one where the focus on workis so hyper-intense, and any distractions so frequently and painfully frowned upon, that he laid there on the floor dying for twenty minutes. Twenty. Minutes. Such are the consequences of the work world in the United States, a world where one can fall to the floor clutching their hearts, suffering from a massive heart attack, only to be ignored or not even seen by their busy coworkers. You can die at work and people won’t stop working to help you. It seems to me that we’re barreling down a race-to-the-bottom to keep up with Chinese factories which have seen massive work-related suicides over the years and similar incidents.

What’s worse, Billy Foister had gone to the AmCare Clinic at the Amazon Warehouse a week prior complaining of chest pains; he was told that it was probably just dehydration and that he should have two drinks to hydrate himself and get back to work. A week later, in the same warehouse, he was lying on the floor dying and would soon be dead.

Foister’s coworkers weren’t even given any time off to process what had happened. “Go back to work,” they were told, because they had bins to fill to prepare for the next round of shipments to go out so people could get their products in time. I’ll be honest, full disclosure, here, I love Amazon and the service it delivers, but I find myself wondering if the human costs are worth the convenience. I’m increasingly starting to believe they aren’t. Are we this addicted to convenience that we’re willing to let people die on the floors of warehouses so we can have whatever we want within 24-hours? But, I’ll note, the problem isn’t just with Amazon — it’s everywhere and it’s ubiquotous throughout American culture and companies, assuring that no matter where you turn for your purchases, goods, and services, you’re likely to encounter some amount of human abuse that takes place in our profit-driven corporate world.

Imagine working so hard that you literally die and everyone around you is working so hard that they can hardly notice; they just keep on going while you lay on the floor gasping your last breaths.

And while it’s easy to throw all of the blame onto Amazon, and some have, the truth is, it’s intellectually dishonest or otherwise misguided to pretend that it isn’t happening just about everywhere in our country, certainly at most workplaces over a certain size, and even at some small ones too. Amazon themselves aren’t to blame and we need an consciousness awakening in order to start making real change. The truth is, Amazon is posed to be able to change and work out its hiccups and they do provide services that people really love, I just don’t think there has to be such a ‘soul-crushing’ work environment in order to make that happen. And we consumers are in-part to blame; do we really need that fun little gadget within 24 hours that we have to order it with Prime and force the additional strain on the warehouse? It’s easy to blame the faceless corporate entity, it’s much harder to turn the question upon ourselves and ask ourselves what we do to contribute to the problem.

Evolutionary Roots

We are becoming and have become a culture obsessed with work and being as productive as possible and entirely sacrificing ourselves and our personal lives in order to prove our absolute devotion to those who pay us, a dependency which, as we’ll see, is necessary for maintaining a certain type of power. But how did we get here? Honestly, I feel that part of it is voluntary; when I was young, I too subscribed to different parts of ‘grind’ culture, where I would profess my undying (or even dying) loyalty to the company that kept me so I could look good or get ahead. Sadly for us, tribal insticts are very hard to shake or break, or even to acknowledge or understand.

But there’s a subtle coercion, too, a less-than-voluntary element to the whole corporate apparatus, one that preys upon our very human willingness to weed out and cast blame upon people who we feel aren’t carrying our own weight. This is engrained in our DNA, we have an evolutionary history with weeding out people who aren’t contributing to the greater good of the tribe; but we’re a long way from being a prehistoric tribe. We’re a technologically advanced nation that will still very comfortably survive if it’s members aren’t all working eighty hours per week to an unhealthy level.

The company and its goals, under our particularly brutal flavor of global capitalism, are always renting real estate in your mind, even on your days off. When one of my friends who worked for this particular establishment, the one that Reggie works as a manager, came down with a brutal case of Staphylococcus aureus, or, the deadly Staph infection, they weren’t able to get a day off and the management team refused to allow them to switch shifts with anyone else. They were ordered to ‘tough it out’ and just work through a deadly bacteria infection. They quit shortly thereafter. Another worker wasn’t given permission to attend the birth of his first child, he was expected to work instead, even though he’d told the company about the pregnancy and they had ample notice to try and arrange something so he could attend, they just refused. It’s a covert way of demanding the absolute loyalty of the employee and pressuring them if they do not bend to the will of their corporate masters the way they should. Anyone who’s worked in an environment that places a premium on ‘grinding’ hard knows exactly what I’m talking about. Reggie’s company also pays low-level employees minimum wage.

If we’re going to have any hope for the future and more humane treatment at work, it starts with us holding one another — even our bosses — accountable for promoting ‘grind’ culture and pretending that if we’re not working like we’re on some pretty insane stimulants, we’re ‘not working hard enough’ or we’re ‘lazy’ in our work ethic. Only a culture as weird as our brand of infinite-growth capitalism could convince people that they need to work 24/7 until an early death and make them feel guilty for wanting to even take a day off where they don’t have to be on-call and reachable at all times.

Such is the weird, twisted, and backward American culture that we live in, one that’s becoming increasingly obsessed with productivity and where the Protestant Work Ethic merges with a weird, hybrid masochism that demands that the subscribers prove their almost-religious devotion to their masters through pain and sacrifice. Max Weber predicted this perfectly over a century ago in 1905, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; and now it’s coming true.

Yes, in America, capitalism has quickly become a religion, one where we exalt ourselves through self-sacrifice and an increasingly diminished personal life and even personal safety. We’ve become the Cult of Capitalism.

The Cult of Unfettered Capitalism

It seems to me that our work structures are starting to resemble cults more and more with every passing year. I remember my years working in my early-20s in the mid-to-late 2000s when workplaces would force people to sacrifice themselves for the good of the company to an alarming degree — and it’s only gotten worse since then. They demand that we all look the same, like indistinguishable drones, that we all wear make-up and other products that we may ethically disagree with (make-up poses significant environmental risks and it’s a largely unregulated industry, meaning health risks might not be disclosed), but all of this goes into the world of breaking down our individuality and making us a part of the group, no longer individual human beings.

According to How Cults Work:

A destructive cult uses countless techniques to get its members to stay, commit themselves and take part in what may be harmful activities. The sum of these techniques constitutes what some people call “mind control.” It’s also known as “thought reform,” “brainwashing” and “coercive persuasion,” and it involves the systematic breakdown of a person’s sense of self.

In short, cults leverage their power once they are the sole arbiters of a human being’s needs, they draw people in with friendly overtures and they hide the dark side of their true intentions until later, once a person is dependent upon them; and I think that many of my readers who’ve come from or live in the buzzing culture of ‘productivity’ and ‘grind’ cultures can confirm, this description isn’t too far off from the ubiquitous bad behavior of corporations all over. The polite face and friendly, fraudulent smiles that lure you in, the interview and HR gatherings that pretend to be so meaningful and caring, the hoopla song-and-dance that’s purpose is to mislead as much as it is to allure and bedazzle. It’s intended to make you feel a certain you and fall in love with your company, but this ruse lulls you into a false sense of security.

The demands are implicit, they hide under the use of strong tones and threats of punishment, demands that you stay late and work longer hours, that you sacrifice increasingly more freedoms which suddenly become the expected standard and norm, not the exception. Late nights are performed under the pretense that if you say no, you’ll be fired; no longer are they asked with friendly, toothy grins, but demanded of you with cold stares and implications of losing your income.

Cults operate, like corporations, by misleading new constituents as to the purpose of the group. There are an infinite number of articles and stories out there talking about how to rally the morale of employees and it’s all nothing shy of propaganda, lest we forget that the main purpose and ethos of every company is profit — no company will pay you to lose them money — nobody. They treat you like a person only up until the point where you wake up one day and realize that your company has employed a massive bait-and-switch campaign and has utilized you to garner profits and the moment you aren’t profitable, you’re expendable. This is the law of capitalism, you profit or else you wither and die.

Further, cults and corporations both use increasing levels of social isolation to control their constituencies. Cults will increasingly demand that you cut yourself off from family members, like my aforementioned friend who, by the time of his only child’s birth, was expected to forgo being present for the birth for the good of the company, lest he is fired. He chose to call their bluff.

Cults deprive their members of the ability to accumulate new resources, just as companies are increasingly asking their employees to only work one job or to work such chaotic and unpredictable schedules that having a second career is becoming increasingly impossible. We demand chaotic schedules and then we place the onus on the employee to manage and make due, even though chaotic work schedules are bad for our mental and emotional health.

This is a consequence of grind culture, and grind culture isn’t cute. Blogs tell us to “remember to eat!” and “make sure you jog and stay active!” and “drink plenty of water!” and a slew of other recommendations as we try to orient ourselves in a world that’s increasingly chaotic for the good of the company, all while real wages have fallen consistently over four decades.

Forbes magazine suggests that to maximize productivity and workplace morale, that companies:

“Establish clear ethos and values for the organization: It is important to have a set of clear organizational core values that are communicated effectively and discussed with the employees so that they feel part of it. It is the commitment that an organization or a company makes to certain policies and actions, such as “going green” or “social change…It is crucial that demonstrable actions are taken regularly so that the employees feel an individual and personal responsibility towards these values. This will ensure that they can evaluate their own attitudes towards these positive core values, and take pride in them. Positive attitudes and positive actions make for a positive workplace culture.”

Contrast this with what could be said about how cults lure in new members:

“Indoctrination, or thought reform, is a long process that never really ends. Members are continually subjected to these techniques — it’s part of daily life in a cult. Some adjust well to it after a period of time, embracing their new role as ‘group member’ and casting aside their old sense of independence. For others, it’s a perpetually stressful existence.”

These are two sides of the same exact coin. This is another thing that’s become increasingly common, where workplaces dictate organization-wide ‘values’ and demand that all of their constituent members subscribe to them. They demand that we sacrifice our own personal values and subscribe to the values of the group that are instilled upon us. We can no longer show up to work, perform our jobs, and go home, no, not at all, now we’re made to believe — and more importantly, to signal that we believe — in the values instilled upon us. What would happen if the company said that we need to value “reliability” and we said no, we won’t allow them to dictate what we value and what we’ll believe? It’s safe to say that such an employee would be instantly ostracized by the corporate higher-ups and would possibly lose their jobs.

What companies don’t realize is that when you try to motivate someone who’s already motivated, the only way to do so is to tell them that their motivations aren’t good enough. Companies don’t understand is that forcing their values on employees, demanding rigorous and vibrant shows of company loyalty that all too many employees are strangely willing to give basically amounts to an environment where, “some adjust well to it after a period of time, embracing their new role as ‘group member’ and casting aside their old sense of independence. For others, it’s a perpetually stressful existence.” They’ll even motivate employees to work so hard with such an unbreakable focus, disallowing even bathroom breaks to make sure productivity keeps up, that employees like Billy Foister will die on the floor while the hyper-motivated workforce around him just keeps on stacking products into bins while a man takes his last breaths.

We know that work shifts, long shifts, third-fifth shifts, graveyard shifts, and chaotic shifts are all bad for us, yet, we do it anyway because, for those who work, they have to. Just ask hospital nurses experiencing extreme burnout and fatigue over their backbreaking shifts. Just ask my friend who couldn’t get a day off to see the birth of his child. They have to for diminishing pay, diminishing healthcare, diminishing benefits, and a complete lack of humane treatment, as companies begin to foster more and more the persona and aura of cults, less and less resembling something understandable, voluntary, and sustainable. It’s a direct outgrowth of our productivity-obsessed ‘grind’ culture.

Ask the family of Billy Foister what they think and if they feel Billy deserved to die for our cultish mentality surrounding work. And we contribute to it every single day we wake up and we post “rise and grind” and other such memetic slogans designed so signal undying (not to mention, unhealthy) devotion to work. Work-life balance isn’t even a possibility for the real workers of this country, it’s a luxury catch-phrase for those of us fortunate enough to be self-employed; but we should never forget about those who do work laborious jobs, handling the tasks that give us the things we need, love, and enjoy.

Yes, under this weird structure of inverted totalitarianism, much like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and unlike Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother need not stare us down with commands and enact brutal forms of militant punishment to keep everyone in line, no, it’s much more subtle to pursuade everyone, manufacturing consent, to give up their own individuality and best interest for the good of the company. Because once they own your pay, they know you’ll go to any lenths to make sure your income stream that keeps you alive and afloat doesn’t dry up. The fact that rent is so astronomically high that most Americans can’t afford both rent and any sort of meaningful savings assures that workers will constantly fall in line with any instilled morale that a company demands of its workplace…usually in your first few days of ‘training’ when they lock you up in a room and make you watch videos. We don’t need to be brainwashed when we’re brainwashing ourselves and we’re doing so for fear of being left out of the great capitalistic adventure; the army of homeless people begging on the streets serve as a constant reminder of what happens to us, too, if we step out of line and go against the grain. If they aren’t terrifying enough, the inflated, bloated US prison population which towers above the per capita prison numbers of Stalin’s gulags at the height of his purges might serve as a more stark reminder. I’ll close with a quote from the book that I find apt called Amusing Ourselves to Death, which can be found here through an affiliate link:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

Does anyone else find this concerning, the unchecked power that corporations increasingly have over people’s livelihoods? I sure do. So, where do we go from here? I believe it starts with us taking a stand and bravely speaking our minds, not falling in lock-step with our peers when we feel that people are being coerced, and — this part is the hardest — speaking out to management and against those who make coercive, unhealthy demands of workers. Go to the press. Go to journalists. If you work at a workplace that’s destructive, feel free to message me or email me and tell me your story. Get it out there. We must change the autocratic, authoritarian work mentality before it consumes us all from the bottom up.

Thank you for reading. This story contains affiliate links through which I may make a small commission. Suggested reading along the lines of this topic are as follows: Aldous Huxley, Brave New World; George Orwell, 1984; Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business; Robert Wright, The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology; and also by Robert Wright, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. And the most highly suggested reading of all, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity, by Douglas Rushkoff can be found here.

Flux Magazine

A Place to Think

Joe Duncan

Written by

From Los Angeles, California. Life isn’t a series of many moments, but one moment that is always changing. Buy me coffee here:

Flux Magazine

A Place to Think

Joe Duncan

Written by

From Los Angeles, California. Life isn’t a series of many moments, but one moment that is always changing. Buy me coffee here:

Flux Magazine

A Place to Think

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