When is Work Really Work?

One of the enduring artificial distinctions we make in our society is between real work and “work.”  Physical labor is generally considered real work, and us desk jockeys are only doing “work,” which really shouldn’t be called work at all (so goes the belief) because it doesn’t involve physical exhaustion.

Perceptions on this have changed somewhat over the years, but the underlying belief persists.  It’s a noble gesture rooted in our past.  This country was built on the backs of hardcore physical workers, and many believe that expanding the word “work” to include non-physical occupations dilutes its meaning.  This thinking leads to statements like, “What Ted the construction worker does–now that’s work. It would be insulting to describe what I, an accountant, do as work compared to what he does.”

The problem with this distinction, however noble, is that it’s patently false.  For a long time, the act of thinking was considered a physically idle activity, presumably because one cannot see thinking taking place–but just the opposite is true.  Thinking requires energy, and it derives this energy from the same source as physical labor: calories.  The term “knowledge worker” made popular in the 80s by Peter Drucker and others is entirely accurate. Processing information to distill knowledge is energy intensive.

But what about the formula for work we all learned in physics?  Work = Force x Distance.  It still has a legitimate role, but it’s essentially a Newtonian tabulation that leaves out more than it includes.  Can we measure the force and distance of thought?  When the brain works through a complex problem, expending a great deal of energy to reach a conclusion, has it not overcome a distance through the force of mental exertion?  I would argue yes, but the traditional formula is not equipped to quantify the brain’s activity. 

What we know, however, is that the brain burns a lot of energy.  Just to function, it consumes a calorie of energy every 3.5 minutes.  The millions of neurons in your brain use 75% of the blood sugar from your liver, and 20% of the overall oxygen you take in every day.  The more parts of the brain are exerted, the more glucose they pull from the bloodstream to convert into fuel for the production of neurotransmitters.  

In his book, “Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers”, neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky references a study showing that chess masters, playing full days of chess during tournaments, burn 6000-7000 calories a day—similar to the level burned by Olympic athletes in training.  That, of course, doesn’t mean that playing chess in general burns thousands of calories, but it does provide overall context for how much energy intense thought can require.

It should be said as well that none of this is justification for being sedentary. Physical activity provides many more benefits than simply burning calories. That aside, our definition of work needs a reboot, and it’s time we drop the artificial distinction between real work and “work.”  Physical and mental work are variations on the same theme—and the brain has a major role to play in both.

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3 thoughts on “When is Work Really Work?

  1. i just got off scaffolding after a day of renovating and painting. i’ve spent days sitting, writing contracts, dealing with customers. both are work and anyone who doesn’t think so simply never applied themselves to the thinking/writing variety.

  2. If rigorous thought carries high metabolic demands, doesn’t this substantiate the claim that fat people are stupid?

  3. what could carrying the ability for rigorous thought have to do with stupidity? if anything, skinny people would be less prepared to engage in such activity.

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