Work Ethic: The Benefits of Hard Work

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Work Ethic: The Benefits of Hard Work

A man willing to work, and unable to find work, is perhaps the saddest sight that fortune’s inequality exhibits under the sun. (Thomas Carlyle, Chartism, 1870)

The work ethic disappeared from our industrial vocabulary. Skiving has taken its place. (Leslie Tolley, Daily Telegraph, 1979)

I think coming to work every day is a holiday. (John Elliot, Business Review Weekly, 1989)

Over 100 years ago, Max Weber, a German polymath, argued that Protestantism was associated with wealth and success. He turned the economic determinism of Marx on its head: religious beliefs drive economics, not the other way around.

He maintained that certain beliefs held by Protestants lead to wealth accumulation. They were: all work is good and ultimately for God’s glory (Doctrine of Calling); the signs of God’s grace can be seen in this world and its monetary success; the rich are the chosen (Doctrine of Predestination); wealth is to be amassed and invested but not spent (Doctrine of Asceticism) and we are all responsible for our own actions and must be rational in decision making, not relying on religious dogma (Doctrine of Sanctification). These religious beliefs, he argued, drove the Protestants to become more enterprising, capitalist and wealthy.

His thesis has been challenged many times. Many really resist the Protestant element and there are many papers arguing that those from other faiths also encourage hard work. So we can have a Buddhist, or Islamic or Jewish work ethic.

Niall Ferguson argued recently that the rise of the west had six important features but that it was the work ethic that made them work. They were competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic: a moral framework and mode of activity derivable from (among other sources) Protestant Christianity, which provides the glue for the dynamic and potentially unstable society created.

The Protestant Work Ethic (PWE) places a universal taboo on idleness, and industriousness is considered a religious ideal; waste is a vice and frugality a virtue; complacency and failure are outlawed and sinful, and ambition and success are taken as sure signs of God’s favour; the universal sign of sin is poverty, and the crowning sign of God’s favour is wealth.

At the heart of the PWE are these typical beliefs:

People have an obligation to fill their lives with hard work, effort and even drudgery, which are to be valued for their own sake; physical pleasures and enjoyments are to be shunned; an ascetic existence of disciplined routine and rigour is the only acceptable way to live.

All workers should have a dependable attendance record, with low absenteeism and tardiness.

Workers should be highly hard-working and productive, and take pride in their work.

Employees should have feelings of (total) commitment and loyalty to their profession, their company and their work group.

Workers should be achievement-orientated and should constantly strive for promotion and advancement because high-status jobs with prestige and the respect of others are important indicators of a ’good’ person.

People should acquire wealth through honest labour and retain it through thrift and wise investments. Frugality is desirable; extravagance and waste should be avoided.

It is an ideology for the spirit of enterprise. Because pessimistic Calvinists were so concerned with scarcity, they stressed the need for productive work to bring about surpluses. They encouraged the propensity to save: the maximization of productivity and minimization of consumption were ethically important and saving seemed a most useful solution. More importantly they stressed the importance of education, reading and skills acquisition.


Psychologists have devised various measures of the PWE. They argue that the work ethic is a constellation of attitudes and beliefs pertaining to work behaviour. The work ethic construct is: (a) is multidimensional; (b) pertains to work and work-related activity in general, not specific to any particular job (yet may generalize to domains other than work, school, hobbies, etc.); (c) is learned; (d) refers to attitudes and beliefs (not necessarily behaviour); (e) is a motivational construct reflected in behaviour; and (f) is secular, not necessarily tied to any one set of religious beliefs.

A recent measure has different dimensions and around 80 questions to get a total score. However, like lots of questionnaires it taps into various dimensions that are at the essence of the work ethic.

Centrality of Work: The importance of work for its own sake. Work being the focus of one’s life.

Self-Reliance: Stressing the importance of striving for independence and self-containment.

Hard Work: Emphasizing the virtuousness and benefits of continual hard work.

Leisure: Beliefs in more leisure and the benefits of non-work activities.

Morality/Ethics: Stressing the importance of justice, and fairness in dealing with others.

Delay of Gratification: Orientation to the future and waiting for later rewards.

Wasted Time: Using time constructively and being efficient.


For well over a century the idea of the PWE has been debated hotly. Was Weber right?

Is it still true today? Is there a decline in PWE beliefs among young people?

It has been suggested for years that the younger generation have lost their taste for hard work. They are, it is said, not disciplined, reliable or money conscious which is at the heart of all our ills. Idle, feckless and entitled the young have, some claim, been spoilt and molly-coddled.

But a very interesting recent study has recently been published online in the Journal of Business and Psychology. The American authors examined the data from 105 studies testing the simple idea that the data would show that Baby Boomers would hold work ethic beliefs and values more than Generation Xers who in turn would defend them more than millennials.

They found the effects of generational membership on workplace behaviour are not as strong as suggested by commonly held stereotypes.

The few careful evidence-based studies on the different beliefs and behaviours have tended to suggest that generational differences are not as extensive as claimed by many. The reason is that attitudes and values are shaped by many things like ability, personality and education.


Furnham, A. (1996). The Protestant Work Ethic. London: Whurr.

Miller, M., Woehr, D. & Hudspeth, N. (2002). The meaning and measurement of work ethic. Journal of Vocational Behaviour, 60, 451—89.

Van Hoorn, A., & Maseland, R. (2013). Does the Protestant work ethic exist? Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organization, 91, 1—12.

Zabel, K., Biermeyer-Hanson, B., Baltes, B., Early, B., & Shephard, A. (2017). Generational differences in work ethic: fact and fiction? Journal of Business and Psychology, 32, 301—15.