“Work ethic” is one of those terms that comes preloaded with its own sort of value judgment, kind of like “clean eating,” or “simplifying,” in the Marie Kondo sense — a phrase that neatly divides the world into two types, people with the right priorities and people with the wrong ones. It’s all in the framing: If you’re not eating clean, you’re eating dirty; if you’re not simplifying, you’re living a life complicated by unnecessary clutter. If you don’t have a work ethic — well, the ethical deficiency is right there in the name.
A work ethic, then, is most often seen as a binary thing: Having it is good, not having it is not. If you’re a parent, you want to raise a kid with a healthy work ethic; if you’re an employer, you want workers who demonstrate one; if you’re a human in this world who cares about how other people see you, you want to make it clear that you have one.
But what does that entail, exactly? The simplest, most colloquial definition of work ethic is something like “the desire to work hard” — but drill down even a little bit, and it becomes frustratingly unspecific. What’s driving the desire? What qualifies as “hard”? Is it something you can turn on and off depending on the situation, or is it something permanently ingrained? Even the psychologists and other researchers who study work ethic have struggled to pin it down — but what they do know is that its halo isn’t totally deserved. Work ethic is a virtue, sure, but when it’s misunderstood, it’s also something that can hold you back.
Here’s what it really means — or our best guess.
To strip away at the glow that surrounds this nebulous concept, it’s helpful to start by defining the terms. Psychology doesn’t have one standard definition of work ethic, but according to David Woehr, a management professor at Beck College of Business at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, it’s often misunderstood as something that exists along a single spectrum: You have it, or you don’t, or you have it to some degree. A better model, he says, might be to think of work ethic as something more like personality: “not one particular thing, but multiple dimensions,” he says. The Big Five personality model, for example, measures five different traits that work in tandem to paint a picture of who you are. The same goes for work ethic — it’s a composite of several elements that together illustrate who you are as a worker, a planner, and a striver.
In a 2002 study published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, Woehr and his colleagues identified seven different dimensions: self-reliance; understanding the value of delayed gratification; attitudes toward wasted time (or the belief that “wasting time is like wasting money,” Woehr says); morality and ethics, or a belief in doing the right thing and treating people fairly; attitudes toward leisure; centrality of work, or a belief in the importance of work for work’s sake; and a belief in the importance of hard work.
The last two seem similar, Woehr explains, but differ in their underlying motivations: Someone high in centrality of work, which is more closely linked to intrinsic motivation, might opt to keep working even after they win the lottery, because the work itself is what matters; on the other hand, someone high in hard work, which is more aligned with extrinsic motivation, might value work more as a vehicle for a comfortable lifestyle and the prestige that success can bring.
Michael Steger, a psychology professor at Colorado State University who studies meaning in work, sees it differently: We all start out motivated by outside forces, he says — a raise, a promotion, bragging rights — but over time, ideally, we absorb that drive and turn it into something internal. “There’s a process called introjection, taking something other people tell you is important and making it your own,” he says. “Work ethic seems like a perfect example of that.” You grow up hearing that it’s important to work hard, and eventually you don’t need to hear it anymore; you just know it to be true.
When your motivation is internal, it can be hard to know when to call it quits.
That introjection process is a good thing, to a point: People who say they have a high work ethic “have lower rates of absenteeism, they have longer tenure, they don’t intend to quit, and they have higher levels of task engagement,” Steger says. “So when they’re at work, they’re actually working, and they’re at work more often, and they stay with the company longer.”
The problem is that when employees are so highly engaged, an unchecked work ethic can cause them to lose sight of work-life boundaries, pushing them over their peak and then into a downward slope.
“There’s healthy work ethic, and there’s unhealthy work ethic,” says Gary Blau, a professor of human resources at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. Unhealthy is what happens when you don’t know how to turn off your motivation; it’s when the belief that work is inherently good transforms into the idea that downtime is inherently bad, or wasteful. “It’s the idea of, ‘I want to keep helping others, it’s never enough,’ and you give give give and you can burn yourself out.”
When your motivation is external, satisfaction can become harder and harder to achieve.
On the other hand, working for the perks rather than the meaning can also go overboard, Blau explains. “We need food and shelter and all that, but sometimes we can get carried away and start comparing ourselves to others, like ‘I want to keep up with the Joneses,’” he says. If the rewards keep coming, there’s that risk of working toward burnout; if they don’t, it could lead to people becoming disillusioned with their jobs altogether.
Those rewards aren’t necessarily always money and prestige. The promise of a bigger salary and a better office can be powerful pushes to work hard, but meaning can also be an extrinsic motivator, Blau says. In the same way that paying people more can cause them to lose interest in their jobs, holding a job that most people would consider meaningful can, at times, chip away at work ethic: You can bask in the glow of doing good regardless of how much you actually do.
That’s because work ethic isn’t necessarily tied to your specific job; in some cases, it’s driven by your broader line of work. “Employee” is a multilayered identity, Blau says, and any one of those layers could be the driving factor: There’s the day-to-day, how they feel about their responsibilities when they sit down at their desk each morning; the organizational level, how they feel about the company’s mission or culture; and the occupational level, or how they feel about the profession overall. A teacher, for example, could feel that being a teacher is a core part of their identity, but could dislike the administration at their school and even dread their time in the classroom; in that case, their work ethic is driven by occupation more than job or organization.
The best way to have a healthy work ethic is to know exactly what that means for your situation.
Even when employees are gung-ho about all three elements — job, company, occupation — it might not always come off that way to the people whose opinions matter most. Ideas about work ethic can differ by generation or career stage, Steger explains. “I think that mid-career and older folks seem to be thinking of work ethic as two things: One, you work hard, and two, you do it the way we want you to do it,” he says. “And what I think work ethic might mean for people entering into a career is, you work hard, you show that you’re working hard, but you’re also looking around the corner, and you’re bringing in new skills and perspectives to your workplace.” Suggestions about how to do things differently may be a 20-something’s way of showing they’re a go-getter, in other words, but those good intentions can get lost in translation, as older bosses take it the opposite way: “They see someone who’s overly ambitious, who’s trying to start out from the top rather than learn the trade from the ground up.”
That sort of miscommunication, he adds, is exacerbated by the fact that most companies don’t bother to define what work ethic means to them. “I don’t think we have to be shy with expectations,” he says. “If you talk to a legal associate at a law firm, a good work ethic is oftentimes, ‘Well, don’t work too hard, just work hard enough to get the job done.’ What that really means is, ‘Work all the time until whatever job I happen to drop in your lap is done.’ So don’t try to beat around it — just clarify that, yeah, you really have to bust your butt, but here’s how you stay sane during that and here’s how it might be worth it for you and your career.”
In other words: There’s no one standard definition of work ethic, but maybe that’s a positive thing. Really, it means that every industry or company or team can define it for themselves, an act that places limits along with demands. Knowing what a good work ethic looks like in your unique situation takes away the stress of constantly wondering whether you’re demonstrating it — and also understanding when you can dial it back, whether or not that’s something that comes naturally. That’s a virtue, too. If it’s a tough thing to accept, think of it this way: Using your vacation days, in the long run, just makes you a better worker.