Human beings watch out: when it comes to a work-life balance, our species may prove the exception to the rule. A recent study by the Missouri University of Science and Technology found that ants—insects famous for their industrious nature—exert less effort in pursuit of maximum returns.
Studies show that overworking decreases not just the quality of life, but also the quality of work. They also show that overworking is, paradoxically, more common in societies that don’t need to work harder for survival. Indeed, the Japanese word “karoshi,” which means “death by overwork,” speaks volumes to this phenomenon.
Despite modern society’s technology, knowledge and development, workload boundaries have a lot of catching up to do. Yes, we are “top of the food chain.” But the biggest threat to our species is ourselves. Why do humans ignore an instinct that is so common—and necessary for survival—throughout the animal kingdom?
Scientists at the Missouri University of Science and Technology used a computerized vision analysis program that tracked the walking behaviors of ants in colonies. They found that in smaller groups—of 30 ants, for instance—60 percent of the worker ants were not moving at any given time. But when scientists observed walking behavior in a group of 300 ants, that percentage increased to 80.
The inactive ants kicked back with the understanding that because the group functions as a whole, it is more efficient to have a smaller percentage of the colony do the heavy lifting for the others. “Taking one for the team” is more effective than “all hands on deck.” Allowing just some ants to do more work conserves the group’s most precious resource: energy.
In other words, the more ants, the less work. If humans employed similar logic, New York City would be as laid-back as the beaches its inhabitants escape to when their jobs drive them to a state of exhaustion.
Photo by Dave Crosby, CC BY-SA 2.0
A glance at the animal kingdom shows that self preservation is linked, in part, to the ability to conserve energy. Apex predators—those who are at the top of the food chain and are not vulnerable to other species—display a remarkable ability to gauge the availability of resources and temper their own energy levels accordingly. Lions, for instance, sleep 16-20 hours a day. They are not just saving energy for when they need it. They are napping because they can. Unthreatened by other predators, lions get to play and socialize—a luxury not afforded to animals lower on the food chain. Other species must dedicate their waking hours to gathering food, evading predators, and building homes and communities that accommodate their vulnerabilities.
Animals who demonstrate gathering behavior—such as squirrels, bees and ants—are not moved for a love of work, but because they need to in order to survive. Lions are the lucky ones. As are eagles. By this logic, humans should be the most relaxed beings on the planet. What causes us to override this instinct?
One popular theory ties the American work ethic to “the Protestant work ethic.” The belief that one’s vocation was dignified in the eyes of God lead people to work hard as a means to salvation. Max Weber’s “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” coined this concept, and explained the Protestant work ethic as the root for capitalist society.
Capitalistic society, which is a breeding ground for consumerism and work addiction, makes it that much easier to work far beyond what is necessary. In other words, societal structures pave the way for overworking. It’s one theory, out of many, but it makes sense. It allows for the “I work too much but am saving for the future” argument, the “I work too much but I enjoy what I do,” viewpoint, the “I work too much, but what would I do if I didn’t?” stance. What is still unclear is why humans override an instinct that is present throughout the rest of intelligent life.
Dr. Chen Hou, the assistant professor of Biological Sciences at Missouri S&T who worked on the study, saw it as providing clues on how society can be more productive and sustainable. “Humans are like ants in a way that we all live together in groups, collaborating toward our own betterment,” Hou said. “Understanding how ants spend their energy in relation to their group and why they do so will provide insight into conditions for individuals that allow a group to perform collective optimization of behavior.”
If humans have been overriding their instinctual nature for generations, it’s unlikely that they will stop now. But a study like this could provide insight to how to improve the workplace itself. By influencing these structures, a better work-life balance could be at hand.
Main photo by Samantha Henneke, CC BY 2.0. Lead photo by Teresa Phillips CC BY 2.0
Elisia Guerena is a Brooklyn based writer, who writes about tech, travel, feminism, and anything related to inner or outer space.