The Protestant work ethic: Heaven knows I'm miserable now

It really does exist, and as jobs disappear, grafters are having to rethink their work-life balance

"Hard work never killed anyone," goes the joke, "but why take the chance?" For those possessed of the much-vaunted Protestant work ethic, however, it isn't a joke; without work they are unhappier than those of other religions. Well-being levels among unemployed individuals are 40 per cent lower in Protestant societies than in other countries, according to a study of more than 150,000 people in 82 countries including the UK.

The researchers from Groningen University in the Netherlands set out to investigate whether a Protestant work ethic, an idea first advanced by sociologist Max Weber in 1904, really exists. Weber suggested that the Protestant religious concept of achieving God-given grace through hard work and frugality was one of the crucibles of capitalist economic systems.

Despite widespread acceptance of his theory, the Dutch researchers found very few studies have been carried out to test it.

They examined whether protestant societies and individuals are more adversely affected by unemployment than others. Countries identified as being historically Protestant included the UK, Australia, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Switzerland and the US. Researchers allowed for a number of factors that could have skewed their results including age, gender, income, education, health, and marital status.

The results show that unemployment reduces happiness and well-being regardless of religious denomination, but that it has a 40 per cent additional negative effect for Protestants. "The negative effect of unemployment on self-reported happiness was twice as strong for Protestants compared with non-Protestants," they say.

"We found that the work ethic does exist, and that individual Protestants and historically Protestant societies appear to value work much more than others," said Dutch economist Dr André van Hoorn, who led the study. "At the individual level, unemployment hurts Protestants much more than it does non-Protestants."

"Protestantism causes a stronger work ethic. Interestingly, it is not so much Protestant individuals who are hurt more by being unemployed as it is individuals – both Protestants and non-Protestants – living in Protestant societies. Our results lend support to Weber's argument that it is a spirit evolving from a historically Protestant ethic rather than contemporary, individual Protestantism that matters."

Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University, said, "It shows that the Protestant work ethic is alive and kicking. It was very evident during the Thatcher and Blair years, and the current coalition emphasis on the negative aspects of benefits are also evidence of it. It is very much a cultural thing. In the UK, for example, people work for achievement; in the US, with fewer safety nets – no redundancy [pay] for example – fear is likely a driver.

"I think 2008 made some differences. People who had followed the work ethic for years found themselves without a job; all the sacrifices – working long hours, not seeing the kids – had not worked out. We may find that's damaged the work ethic and people are putting less focus on work and more on a balance between work and the rest of their life."

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