“When you have a virtue – a real, complete virtue (and not just a small drive towards some virtue) – you are its victim!”

It is not always advisable to begin an article by quoting Friedrich Nietzsche. The late-nineteenth-century German philosopher was famously taken as an inspiration by the Nazis (despite the fact that he hated Germans) and although Nietzsche was certainly no Nazi, it is true that he had many deeply illiberal opinions: from his loathing of egalitarian democracy, to his belief that all the suffering of a society could be justified according to its capacity to produce great creative geniuses – people that is such as Goethe, Beethoven, and Nietzsche himself.

But for all his brazenfaced audacity, Nietzsche was also an acute psychologist, described by Sigmund Freud as a man with “a more penetrating knowledge of himself than any other man who ever lived or was ever likely to live.” And the quote with which this article began is taken from The Gay Science (1882), a middle-period work Nietzsche wrote while he was at the height of his intellectual powers.

Although The Gay Science or ‘The Joyful Wisdom’ was certainly not addressed to inhabitants of the twenty-first century workplace, Nietzsche does refer to the “blindly raging industriousness” of his own age, and offers a series of insights which are perhaps just as relevant today as they were in the late nineteenth century.

“To the teachers of selflessness…”

Nietzsche was an aphoristic writer who filled his books with short sections of prose, and the quote with which this article began is taken from a particular section of The Gay Science addressed “To the teachers of selflessness” – by which Nietzsche means those who commend a life of selflessness and virtue. Why, he asks, is such a life deserving of praise?

Nietzsche suggests that many of the virtues (he names diligence, obedience, chastity, piety, justice among them) are praised not so much because they are good for the person who practises them, but rather because they are good for someone else – typically us and the society to which we belong. “The praise of virtues” writes Nietzsche, “has always been far from ‘selfless’, far from ‘unegoistic’!… The neighbour praises selflessness because it brings him advantages!”

If we take the modern workplace for our example, we can probably agree that productivity is considered the chief virtue. But for who, we might ask, is productivity actually a good thing?

Now obviously productivity is not considered ‘good’ because it makes employees any happier (though it might lead to a higher salary), but because it is good for the organisation to which the employee belongs. Virtues such as productivity, that is, are praised because of the role they play in supporting the existence of a social world – such as a business.

There is of course nothing necessarily wrong with all this, if practise of the virtue in question (e.g. productivity) really is necessary to the continued existence of a particular society, and if that society (or business) is worth the effort of preserving. But we need to be ready to ask the question: is it? Because – and this is the crucial point – if the virtue in question was not in some sense essential to the preservation of our happiness as members of a worthwhile society, “one would have had to recognize” writes Nietzsche “that the virtues… are mostly harmful to their possessors”.

How is it that our virtues can be harmful?

We are used to thinking of our virtues as good and excellent things, but for Nietzsche it is important to recognise that our virtues can actually be harmful ­– that is, they can become drives which “dominate [us]… all too violently and covetously, and in no way let reason keep them in balance with the other drives.”

Indeed, on Nietzsche’s view we can become so attached to our virtues that instead of possessing them, they can actually – take possession of us!

Nietzsche himself refers to a youth, a “devoted tool” who has “worked himself to death”, and here we might think of investment bankers and similar professionals, notorious for their intense work ethic and symptoms of stress and depression.

But the example doesn’t need to be so extreme. We can think rather about how ordinary ‘workaholics’ might struggle to enjoy themselves on holiday, or about how difficult we can all sometimes find it to switch off and turn away from our screens.

The point for Nietzsche is that in order to account for such phenomena, we need to acknowledge “the unreason in virtue”, that is “the blind drive in every virtue that refuses to be held in check by the overall advantage of the individual.”

“Blindly raging industriousness” writes Nietzsche, “is represented as the road to riches and honour… but one keeps silent about its danger, its extreme dangerousness…”

A forthcoming study linking excessive work effort to poor wellbeing

A forthcoming study due to be published in the Industrial and Labor Relations Review, offers some support for Nietzsche’s psychological speculations regarding “the unreason in virtue” in the context of the modern workplace.

Examining data on almost 52,000 employees representing the European workforce in 2010 and 2015, the researchers found that excessive work effort broadly predicts both unfavourable well-being and unfavourable career-related outcomes.

That is, those who report the highest levels of work effort tend not only to have a lower sense of well-being, but also tend to do worse over the course of their careers. How are we supposed to make sense of such a counter-intuitive finding?

The researchers suggest that excessive work effort comes at the cost of limited recovery, leading to lower well-being and diminishing capacity for performance:

“Overtime reduces day-to-day recovery, while work intensity (the amount of effort you put in during the time you spend at work) reduces opportunities for recovery during the working day. This lack of recovery accumulates and ultimately decreases your ability to perform at adequate levels and deliver quality work.”

We are left to imagine a vicious circle, in which the more ‘virtuously’ and continuously we strive to put the effort in, the more we damage our well-being and the less effectively we are able to perform over the longer term.

Be more productive by… not being productive?

Fortunately, Nietzsche does have some suggestions for us. In particular for Nietzsche, we need what he calls our “higher selfishness” to protect us from the excesses of our virtues, so that we are able to put those virtues in question where appropriate, according to the judgment of reason. And, crucially, we need to remember to balance our virtues with our other drives, reconciling ourselves to their respective tensions.

In the case of productivity, for example, we need to realise that we can’t be productive all the time, and that if we are determined to be productive workers, then we need to learn that being productive might entail spending more time not being productive – by getting a little more sleep, for example.

This is not always easy to do, especially if we feel ourselves on the edge of some great success. But if we want to be sustainably productive and we want to find enjoyment in what we do, then we need to be able to recognise our limits. And as it turns out, by being a little wiser about ourselves as human beings we might become just a little better as employees, managers and business owners, too.

Note: the text I quote in this article is from the Cambridge edition of The Gay Science, translated by Josefine Nauckhoff. You can probably find a PDF version online. See pp43-45, 1.21: “To the teachers of selflessness”.