Caffeine: The Crutch of Modern Working Life


Coffee is such a core part of the working environment that it is never questioned. Caffeine is a drug which is not only accepted in the work environment – it is a drug which must be available at all times. It is simply the norm. Coffee can also be covered by business expenses because it is considered such a basic necessity in the office.

We must keep in mind that caffeine is a drug. People usually forget this when they drink cup after cup of coffee. Caffeine is a stimulant and like all stimulants it has some predictable effects – it reduces physical fatigue, restores alertness and increases wakefulness. These are effects all coffee drinkers are familiar with. Caffeine has some productivity-enhancing effects as well, as it can lead to a faster flow of thought, increased focus and improve body coordination. You might ask: “what’s so bad about that?” After all, having less tired and more focused workers is desirable in any business. That may be true. But it begs the question (well two questions in fact): Why are workers so tired in the first place as to need caffeine? And does this dependency on caffeine have some potential risks?

Getting Through the Work Day


In regards to the first question, work is tiring for a lot of people because the hours may be very long. In the modern industrialised world, more often than not, your value as a worker is measured by how much of your time you give to the business. Someone who works part-time is not as valuable as someone who works full time, and someone who works 50 hours a week is more valuable than someone who does the average 9 to 5.

As ‘happiness expert’ Alex Kerjulf explains on the London Real podcast, there is a “cult of overwork” and a “mindless worship of those who work the most hours”. However, he expands on this point and reveals that this cult of overwork is actually counter-productive and nonsensical – those who work 60 hours a week don’t get more work done than those who work 40 hours a week. This is because overwork leads to more stress, anxiety, frustration and tiredness, which results in more mistakes made and less creative output. Moreover, with less personal time, those who overwork will be less happy, which will also affect their drive and productivity. For Kerjulf, what matters is results. The number of hours you work does not accurately reflect what kind of results you can offer to the company or what your actual worth to them is.

So here we have a situation where many people are unnecessarily tired at work and the only thing that will keep them going is caffeine. They may wake up very early in the morning and need a coffee right away in order to fight off any pangs of drowsiness, as well as the desire to get back into bed. If people are working 50-60 hours a week, they will be at the office until evening and up until that time may have had the amount of coffee that would send me crazy (I don’t drink coffee, so just one cup will have me feeling pretty jittery and restless). And then by the time they get home, they’ve had so much coffee during the day that they find it difficult to sleep. This insomnia may only be worsened by anxious thoughts about work the next day. Then, after a poor night’s sleep, they start it all over again. It's an endless cycle.

There is another reason why work is tiring, irrespective of whether you work ridiculously long hours or not. Let’s say you work a 9 to 5. Now whether you are in a junior role or in a managerial position, the nature of your work may still drain you of all your energy. Many workers (of course not all workers) are constantly stressed, frustrated, anxious, nervous, bored and depressed in relation to their work. Just take the office environment itself. You are sitting in a chair eight hours a day (or seven if you take your lunch hour) staring at a computer screen doing some monotonous task which you gain no satisfaction from. You’ve got the phone constantly ringing, bright office lights which can’t be dimmed, the irritating noises of the fax machine and printer. It can be a pretty stifling and irritating environment to spend your day, five days a week in. And let's not forget the stress that comes from commuting - whether you're stuck in traffic or crammed in a train - this can be a very unnerving experience at times.

The simple fact that you may be sat in front of a computer all day, not doing any physical activity and having no outlet for creativity is itself a reason why office work is so depressing. People gain satisfaction from work when they can use their creative efforts to achieve a positive impact. So it's not surprising that most workers live for the weekend and dread Mondays. What do you expect when office work is so unfulfilling?

Whether you’re a manager or not, the demands of the day may also bring about high levels of stress, anxiety and frustration. If you’re working under a manager or a director, then you have to be sure to meet their every demand, on time and to the highest standard. Even when you manage to do so, your achievements may still never get recognised, leading to further frustration. From the manager or director’s point of view, they are in an extremely responsible position in the business and there is a lot of pressure on them to deliver results. They have to co-ordinate many workers and juggle many projects on a daily basis. The pressures experienced by managers and non-managers are often shared. No one can be relaxed when targets have to be met and mundane tasks completed. But the stress, anxiety and nervousness doesn’t end at the end of the day. When trying to sleep you may be obsessively worrying about the work that needs to be done the next day and these agitating thoughts keep you from sleeping, leading to more tiredness.

Thus, modern working life is inherently stressful and frustrating. It is this stress and frustration, along with anxiety, boredom and depression, which contributes to tiredness. Work-related stress not only leads to tiredness as many studies have shown (such as this one), but stress has also been linked to a host of other mental and physical side-effects and illnesses, which this paper by The Work Foundation elaborates on. Relationships at work are also vital. If you hate your boss (or if your boss hates you) or if you don’t get on with other co-workers, then this will lead to more depression; again contributing to tiredness. Strong and co-operative relationships are a necessity in work – both for the well-being of each worker and for delivering results. It is no coincidence that coffee is taken for granted in the workplace. It is an essential component. We need to be drugged so that work can become bearable. We can only endure the tiredness that results from work if we are constantly receiving some additional form of stimulation. Now to address the second question (in case you forgot what it was): “Isn’t this dependency on caffeine dangerous?”

Caffeine Dependence


Caffeine dependence is a real issue. It is the most commonly used mood-altering drug in the world and habitual use does lead to dependence, although a review of the scientific literature suggests that caffeine is not physically addictive like cocaine is. But don’t take this to mean that caffeine is safe either. Dependency on anything can still be harmful. Caffeine can produce tolerance in some people, meaning that they have a decreased responsiveness to the drug, so that a higher dose is needed to achieve the desired effects. For example, what a heavy coffee drinker drinks on a daily basis would for me, personally, make me go insane. But that’s because I have no tolerance to caffeine.

Caffeine withdrawal is also well documented. Withdrawal symptoms include: headache, fatigue, drowsiness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, anxiety and low mood. People not only need coffee to survive work, but once dependent on it, kicking the habit becomes a struggle. Extreme caffeine withdrawals can result a complete inability to function in one’s daily activities. A paper entitled Neuropsychiatric effects of caffeine examines how caffeine is implicated in the exacerbation of sleep and anxiety disorders. The study found that: 

It [caffeine] antagonises adenosine receptors, which may potentiate dopaminergic activity and exacerbate psychosis. In psychiatric in-patients, caffeine has been found to increase anxiety, hostility and psychotic symptoms.

There is also some evidence that caffeine can increase one’s chances of contracting heart disease (as suggested by this study and this review of the literature).

So there we have it. Modern working life seems to demand that we take a mood-altering, habit-forming and potentially harmful drug every day in order to defeat work-related fatigue. Yet caffeine dependency is not considered to be a problem in society. And why would it? Workers who are stimulated and focused and alert are productive workers. Those are workers that are valuable. Workers who are tired because of the stressful nature of their job are less valuable.

Solutions


There are two solutions to this problem, although the second solution should be preferred. The first solution is to seek out a healthier way to maintain energy levels in order to survive the work day. This includes a healthy diet and exercise. The second solution involves a radical change. People need to either find a job which doesn't make them tired and unhappy all the time, or work environments themselves need to change. As Alex Kerjulf, the ‘happiness expert’ stresses, modern working life does not have to be stressful and tiresome. As the company he works for proves (and many others, including Google) you can have a non-stressful work environment yet still be extremely successful. There needs to be a systematic change in the modern industrialised work ethic so that caffeine is no longer a crutch we have to depend on.

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I'm a freelance writer who is interested in a variety of subjects, especially those which are philosophical, complex and involve a multitude of perspectives. I created this blog in order to share my thoughts, and to encourage debate and discussion about the most fascinating topics I can think of. Get in touch: samwoolfe@gmail.com