Work Ethic: How to Cultivate One and Why It’s a Valuable Trait

A woman smiles while looking at her laptop


Kayla Heisler
Kayla Heisler1.16k

Work ethic is the principle that diligence is a positive indicator of a person’s character and deserves reward. A person with a good work ethic believes that working hard is a positive quality. People often describe others who have good work ethics as being dependable and motivated. Work ethic is often one of the major qualities that employers consider when searching for someone to join their organization.

How do you show a good work ethic?

1. Practice punctuality

One of the best ways to demonstrate that you have a solid work ethic is to be punctual. Going above and beyond to make sure that you are on time for work conveys the idea that you take what you are doing seriously. Consistently arriving tardy sends a message (whether you feel this way or not) that being at work isn’t all that important. By going the extra mile to arrive on time, you demonstrate that being there is something that matters to you.

2. Be mindful of deadlines

As with practicing punctuality, obeying deadlines is another way to show that you have a good work ethic. However, you should not greatly sacrifice quality to meet a deadline. If you find yourself in a bind for time, let the appropriate person know as soon as possible when you will need additional time to complete a project. This demonstrates that you’re focused on the job and value the final outcome.

3. Confront challenges

If a project is too difficult or something goes wrong while you’re working on something, instead of rolling over and giving up, work to overcome the adversity. If you’re trying to meet a sales target but you keep hearing “no,” rework your strategy instead of telling your boss you can’t do it. Seek help from other resources or devote extra time to solving problems instead of giving up when things become challenging.

4. Never stop learning

When you really care about the quality of your work, you ensure that you have as much knowledge as possible at your disposal. The only way to be the best is to continue to learn and adapt to changes that come along. For instance, if someone has a poor work ethic and their office switches to a new database system, they may hesitate to learn how to use it and only inform themselves when forced to. On the other hand, a person with a strong work ethic would learn as much as possible about the system so that they may use it effectively and produce the best results.

5. Offer help to others

Instead of doing nothing after you finish your assignments, offer to help other people or take it upon yourself to take care of something that needs to be handled. A good way to approach this is to let people know that if they need an extra set of eyes on anything, you would be happy to help. This demonstrates that your desire to work hard goes beyond your own self-interest.    

Why this trait is valuable and how to cultivate it if you don’t feel as if you have one

Having a strong work ethic is important because those who have one believe that doing their best is ethical. People are more inclined to want to work with people who value hard work than with those who do not. Without a work ethic, completing tasks can seem pointless. It’s easier to give up and cut corners if you believe that there isn’t a reason not to. Lacking a work ethic can be professionally damaging.

Still, not everyone naturally has a work ethic. Fortunately, it is possible to develop a work ethic even if you don’t have one naturally. One way to to essentially ‘fake it till you make it.’ Even if you don’t feel a personally driven to produce your best work, you can make a plan to improve at a certain skill each day as a competition with yourself. Once you gain a sense of confidence, you may enjoy the way doing a good job feels and continue to do so.

Who you spend time with can have a major impact on your work ethic. If all of the colleagues you associate with slack off and don’t care about the job, their attitude is likely to transfer to you. Seek out coworkers who have strong work ethics, and their attitude is likely to rub off on you. If you have friends with good work ethics, speak to them about it—it’s likely that they once lacked a work ethic themselves.

Think about times where you worked really hard to achieve a goal and try to remember how succeeding felt. Compare that feeling to the way it feels to do something poorly, and think about which one was better. Remember that your work ethic can impact which of the two feelings you experience more often.

U.S. work ethic vs other countries

There are many different ways to measure work ethic. Work ethic has different connotations for different people and cultures. Spending more hours working doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has a stronger work ethic than someone who spends less time working, but time spent on tasks does often indicate where we place value.

One facet of work ethic is believing that working hard will lead to reward. In a survey from Pew Research Center, 75 percent of American workers agreed with the statement that most people could succeed if they work hard while 57 percent of British workers and 35 percent of Russian workers agreed. 

According to a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Americans work more hours on average than workers in most industrial nations: 70 hours more than Japanese workers, 99 hours more than British laborers, and 424 more hours than German workers per year.

Employees in the United States are less likely to use their maximum amount of allotted vacation days. A survey conducted by Glassdoor revealed that the average employee on the United States only uses around 54 percent of their allotted vacation time each year. Some workplaces maintain policies that encourage employees to work instead of taking vacation, such as practices that allow employees to exchange unused vacation days for money. Meanwhile, workers in Sweden receive an average of five paid weeks of vacation which is typically used.

Despite overworking habits, some argue that American work ethic has decreased over time (especially with regards to Millennials. Another way to measure work ethic is by how much a person seeks to master their profession, so it isn’t only about completing work, but about really feeling good about it and deriving a sense of meaning from it. In other words, there’s a side to work ethic that goes beyond the quantifiable. 

Though having a work ethic is important, taking time to relax and care for mental and physical health is as well. Finding balance is a key to avoiding burnout and being successful in all areas of life.

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Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets 2017 anthology.