Why Work Hurts

Today I had a case of the Mondays. Like at the start of many weeks, I was under-slept from the night before, and came into the office late, to face a pile-up of work which had accumulated over the weekend. Sigh …

So yeah, I had to just grit my teeth, plug in the headphones, put my back into it, and I got it done. But at several points through the day, I had to just slump against my desk, put my forehead down, and sigh some more. Take a few breaths. Rest my eyes. Let my brain idle just a bit.

Each time, the thought ran through my head: I don’t want to be here.*
This doesn’t feel good.

My body whined at me like a spoiled child. Quit asking me to focus, it said. Quit making me concentrate. Quit trying to do your job. Just chilllll …

It occurred to me that such a response, while entirely normal, is still a bit perplexing. So today I was curious — why does work hurt?

More specifically, I mean: when your work load is higher than normal, and your energy supply is lower than normal — we’ll call this state being weak — why does that automatically cause your body to revert to childish behavior? Why does it feel unpleasant? Why do we get cranky and needy and selfish when we’re weak?

Everyone has felt this. Nobody is a stranger to it. But still, I’ve never considered why our bodies and minds respond by protesting.

Some conjectures, which are strangely Newtonian-flavored:

1) Inertia

Objects at rest would prefer to stay at rest, and you’ve got to apply force in order to change the situation. When our minds and bodies are at rest, they usually are for some reason happier (??). Forcing yourself to get moving, either mentally or physically, requires the application of force, the administering of cognitive focus, the flexing of muscles, etc. We are simply lazy, and would prefer to save our energy. Is there like an evolutionary psychology thing there? Are we trying to save energy for the next hypothetical famine time? Or … is it like a sin nature thing? Either/or.

2) Friction

Evidently there is an issue with friction. If it was just inertia in play, then once you got started working, it should be relatively easy to continue. But, for most of us this isn’t true, and today it sure wasn’t easy for me. I could get started and continue for spurts of 20-30 minutes and then I’d lose momentum and have to rest and refocus. So clearly there is some kind of internal resistance going on, with work. In the case of physical labor, it’s easy to see that biomechanical friction comes into play. With mental work, which is most of my job … I guess the situation is more nuanced. I know that the whole sodium-potassium pump thing requires energy to operate, and that’s why thinking makes you tired.

But, it’s really easy for me (even when I’m exhausted) to browse the web for outdoor gear, or cruise through Facebook, or even check my email. Why is that? These things clearly require thinking and focus as well … they are just somehow far more interesting to me, and evidently entail far less friction. How does that work? Does anybody know?

3) Stimulus deprivation

This last bit perhaps answers the question from the previous item. Aimlessly cruising through outdoor blogs and facebook profiles is a great way to feed my brain with a bright stream of varied stimulus, which it seems most of us need almost constantly. By comparison, trying to focus on e.g. answering emails is an uphill battle from the start, because there is so little stimulus variation. Or something like that. So perhaps (3) here should really be (2b).


Okay, that’s a start, anyway. So my question for today was essentially — why does work hurt us when we feel weak? My haphazard conclusions for now are:

  • It takes energy to get to work, and for whatever reason most of us would prefer to retain energy rather than expend it.
  • Focusing on work for more than a little while takes the exertion of the will (read further energy), because work doesn’t seem to provide nearly the stimulative variety that we get from even marginally entertaining distractions and passtimes.

I think at the end of all this, I may have simply affirmed that it hurts to work because work doesn’t feel good, or at least that’s almost entirely the case when we’re tired and overloaded.

There. Good. Quite a deep thought for today. Boy, that sure makes me feel noble. I get whiny and selfish and short-tempered when I’m tired and I have to work, all because it doesn’t feel good. Ha. The human race. So inspiring.

Anyway, if you have a better theory on this, I’d love to hear it.


*Just to be clear here — I think my job is great. I’ve already discussed how there’s not really anything that my employer could do (within reason) to improve it. The notion of not wanting to be here has little to do with overall morale or my commitment to integrity in the work itself, but instead concerns the mind’s generic reaction to being forced to wake up.

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One Comment

  1. Isaiah 26:1 In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:

    “We have a strong city;
    God will appoint salvation for walls and bulwarks.
    2 Open the gates,
    That the righteous nation which keeps the truth may enter in.
    3 You will keep him in perfect peace,
    Whose mind is stayed on You,
    Because he trusts in You.
    4 Trust in the Lord forever,
    For in YAH, the Lord, is everlasting strength.

    I think there are probably hundreds of verses (and stories)in God’s word that could shed light on your question “Why Work Hurts?”, but for some reason after reading your post above these verses popped into my head. More specifically verses 3 and 4. It says that those who stay their minds on God, BECAUSE THEY TRUST IN HIM, will be kept in perfect peace by Him. It’s probably not possible to stay are minds on God, and also do our sometimes boring jobs getting all the shit done. (pardon my foul mouth:) So maybe, we’re kind of like the Israelites in bondage in Egypt, who had to do back breaking work under their Egyptian slave drivers. In fact, when Moses was sent by God to Pharoah(whom I’ve been told was the personification of satan at that time) to tell him to let the Israelites go so that they could go worship their God and head for the promised land, he got pissed. Basically said, “Who is the Lord that I should obey Him?” In fact, I think he even accused Moses and the Israelites of just being lazy and not wanting to work so he promptly told there slave drivers to make the Israelites work harder and produce more. Anyways, verse 4 say to trust in the Lord forever, for in Him is everlasting, never failing strength. So maybe I’m saying as long as we are living in this world, whom the apostle John says lies in/under the power of the evil one, ie satan, we will subject to one degree or another to it’s evil influence/curse/hard work/toil. I don’t know if this helps at all with your quandary, or if this really relates to your search for an answer to Why Work Hurts, but these are a few random, shoot from the hip, thoughts I wanted to try to throw out there. Enjoy reading your articles by the way.


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