'Trying to avoid work' | Elon Musk's latest 'work ethic' rant demonstrates why burnout is at crisis levels

Elon Musk's latest 'work ethic' rant demonstrates why burnout is at crisis levels

Viewing workers not as complex human beings with a myriad of needs, but simply as a means to an end – a stage in a process that results in profit – is not only morally corrupt, but from a HR perspective, is a sure-fire way to wind up facing a widespread crisis.

This is why, when Elon Musk, the richest man in the world and founder of both electric car company Tesla and space exploration firm SpaceX, recently praised workers at Tesla’s Chinese factory for ‘burning the midnight oil’, as reported by The Guardian, HR leaders the world over cringed.

Speaking on Tuesday at Tesla’s Shanghai ‘Giga-factory’, Musk noted that he considered the work ethic of his Western workers, most notably a refusal to work until three in the morning, or seemingly dare to leave their place of work at all, to be nothing but pure laziness.

“There is just a lot of super talented hardworking people in China who strongly believe in manufacturing,” he said. “They won’t just be burning the midnight oil, they will be burning the 3am oil, they won’t even leave the factory type of thing, whereas in America people are trying to avoid going to work at all.”

Unrealistic, and factually wrong

This is far from the first time that Musk has made comments about the work ethic of his people; he himself has proudly exclaimed that his own work ethic is so strong he can often be found sleeping in a cot under his desk between bouts of superhuman productivity and inspirational leadership. However, of course, we know that this absurd view of what it means to be ‘productive’ is simply not grounded in science.

Data from the Wellbeing Thesis, along with innumerable other work studies, found that in order to truly get the best work out of your team, taking more time to relax, clear your head and rest results in greater productivity, not less.

“Relaxing and social breaks have been found to be particularly beneficial. A relaxing break can help to facilitate recovery, by returning your mental and psychical functional systems to their baseline. Additionally, a relaxing break can help to reset your mood, thereby promoting positive wellbeing and reducing stress,” the study concluded.

Of course, the opposite is also true. A lack of breaks and time away from work reduces cognitive function, making the work produced poorer in quality, and fundamentally decreasing the wellbeing of staff.

This leads us to perhaps the most fundamental point against Musk’s view of a ‘good work ethic’ – people who don’t take time away from work burn out.

Burnout – of course

In 2022, it should be no revelation to business leaders that a vast number of workers are dangerously close to burning out. This is for several reasons; the mental and physical strain of the pandemic has had a profound impact on the workforce, many of whom have had their health impacted by the virus, or lost friends and family members.

Elsewhere, remote working has blurred the lines between home and working hours; Hays research recently discovered that 52% of professionals report working longer hours when working remotely than before COVID-19. Data from Robert Half found that on average, people are working a total of two hours longer per working day – that’s a shocking ten hours extra per week.

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And, of course, the volatility brought about due to the pandemic, the Great Resignation and current financial instability means that many workers simply have bigger workloads than they did before. In fact, research conducted by the remote team-building firm Wildgoose found that a massive 44% of UK employees reported being expected to do more work over the last year, with those at mid-sized firms most likely to have an increased workload.

Overall, it’s safe to say that the workforce as a collective is teetering on the edge of disaster. Perhaps most shocking are the statistics published by Indeed at the tail end of 2021, which concluded that more than half (52%) of UK workers are perpetually experiencing burnout. This is a huge amount of the workforce, and significantly up from the 43% who said the same in Indeed’s pre-COVID-19 survey.

Where does this leave Musk?

Whilst Musk has obviously had masses of financial success by pushing his people to work long hours, likely far beyond those of their contracts, ultimately the clock is ticking on the longevity of this approach. The world has progressed from a ‘stay in the office until the boss leaves’ mentality, and with the talent crisis continuing to sweep the globe, not only will Musk find that his people are rendered unable to work due to their own massive mental and physical health issues, but that there aren’t people lining up to take their place.


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