Sunday, the New York Times ran a front-page story about how Amazon treats its white collar workers, and reading it made me half horrified and half jealous. This is a company that punishes employees for having cancer or becoming parents. It’s a company that unapologetically tells their people to work more at the expense of their families. It’s a company that developed an internal App that encourages “team” members to sabotage each other. Former employee Noelle Barnes says, “Amazon is where overachievers go to feel bad about themselves.”
I’m a bit of an overachiever too, and I seriously value hard work. So the idea of being part of a company that praises hard work and dedication, that tells me it’s okay to ignore everything else in favor of the success of my work projects, that encourages me to tattle on people who aren’t going above and beyond, that gives me one simple rule: Amazon above all — well, to me that actually sounds kind of comforting.
Of course, that’s the danger. That mantra of “work over everything” is tempting to me, but an environment like that also feeds the worst parts of my personality and does nothing to balance them. Ultimately, it’s bad for me as a person, and it’s even bad for me as an employee; that level of dedication can’t be sustained, and it leads to burnout. As much as workaholics like me hate to admit it, we are human beings, and we simply don’t function well when we don’t acknowledge that fact — when we don’t care for our sick or spend time with our families or develop a life outside of work.
Amazon’s culture of workaholicism doesn’t seem that bad when compared with the “real” problems of the world (famine, war, etc.). It doesn’t even seem that bad when compared with Amazon’s culture of straight-up abusing the poor in their warehouses. But it is dangerous, in part because Amazon’s success in treating people badly is tempting other companies to do the same. Sunday’s New York Times story made a big splash about Amazon, but it’s also prompting a broader conversation about what it means to all our work situations because companies are copying their model. (And even if they weren’t, Amazon is so huge that their practices would effect a substantial percentage of our population even if they didn’t have copycats.)
Working corporate staff to exhaustion doesn’t seem that bad in theory, but Amazon’s extreme tactics don’t leave its employees room to start families, get sick, or grow old. That policy isn’t sustainable in our work force as a whole, and we’re going to have to work to make sure it doesn’t spread. The best way to stop it? Stop funding it. Everything we buy from Amazon supports their system — it supports people crying at their desks and abandoning their children and passing out in warehouses. If we want to be treated like humans at work, we have to start acting humanely, and I think that means not funding businesses that refuse to.
Carrie Rollwagen is author of The Localist: Think Independent, Buy Local and Reclaim the American Dream, creator of 30 Days of Local Praise and co-founder of Church Street Coffee & Books. Find her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @crollwagen.