The Cost Of The Laziness Lie

I was halfway through my first year of college the night I checked myself into the hospital. I’d had agonizing stomach cramps for most of the semester, but one night, it was bad enough that I could no longer ignore my body. 

Some hours and several tests later, the emergency room doctor held up an x-ray of my stomach, pointing to a constellation of dark patches on the film. “Trapped gas,” she explained. “It can happen when you eat quickly and swallow too much air.” She told me not to scarf down meals between classes anymore. Sure thing, I thought. I’ll simply find time to sit down and eat in between my multiple jobs and 18 credit hours.

I’ve always felt a need to outwork and outperform everyone, and partly as a result of not wanting to be called “lazy.” Since my first job at 15, I’ve operated with as much on my plate as possible. And this work ethic has taken a toll on my body—it did that night in the ER and it still does when I’m not careful. In this past year especially, it’s felt difficult to justify rest. With so much going on in the world, working nonstop can feel like the only reasonable option.

In this past year especially, it’s felt difficult to justify rest.

Dr. Devon Price, a social psychologist and professor at Loyola University, understands this urge to overwork too. And they’ve also experienced health scares from stress. After completing a Ph.D. at 25, they were struck with a terrible fever for nine months. Doctors couldn’t figure out why and it wasn’t until Price slowed down and embraced rest that their health finally returned. They’ve since dedicated their research to uncovering the truth about burnout and laziness, including coining the term: the laziness lie.

What Is The Laziness Lie?

“The Laziness Lie is the source of the guilty feeling that we are not ‘doing enough’; it’s also the force that compels us to work ourselves to sickness,” writes Price in their recently released book, “Laziness Does Not Exist.” 

When we call someone (or ourselves) “lazy,” it’s often with a tone of moral judgment and condemnation, they explain. “…We don’t simply mean they lack energy; we’re implying that there’s something terribly wrong or lacking with them.”

Except we’ve often been pushed beyond our limits. Especially in countries that prioritize efficiency and output from employees, burnout is prevalent. A recent online study of 1,100 employed U.S. adults found that 76% were experiencing burnout, the primary symptoms of which include physical and emotional exhaustion.

“[People are] dealing with immense loads of baggage and stress, and they’re working very hard. But because the demands placed on them exceed their available resources, it can look to us like they’re doing nothing at all,” writes Price.

And the laziness lie is everywhere, they tell me; from a very young age we’re told that working hard is paramount. We believe passion and sacrifice are important and that a person who sets limits has to justify why they “need” or deserve a break. “It is a pervasive ideology that affects each of us so deeply that we don’t even recognize [it],” Price says.

But the laziness lie harms us at an individual level—whether we believe it about others or ourselves.

But the laziness lie harms us at an individual level—whether we believe it about others or ourselves. We fear if we stop working, or instead if we stop to rest, then we will somehow lose. 

Except we’re already losing. We can’t produce as much when we’re overworked, even when we think we should have more to show for our efforts. Even more than losing out on efficiency, we’re compromising our physical and mental health.

And the laziness lie is harming our communities, especially marginalized communities.

“Exploiting people is hard to morally justify—unless you claim certain people are ‘lazy’ and supposedly need the structure of being forced to work,” says Price. “This is how our systems of oppression further themselves. [These systems] depict those we have exploited and mistreated as lazy and to blame for their own suffering.”

But if only systems and capitalism benefit from the laziness lie—because even the wealthiest person can feel obligated to work too hard and experience burnout—and it’s actively harming our communities, why do we continue to buy in?

“The first thing I’ll say is that these problems are centuries in the making, and we absorb them all our lives, so no one should expect to just unlearn it through sheer willpower in the blink of an eye,” says Price, who still struggles with it too.

We can begin asking ourselves harder questions, and work towards concrete changes in our workplaces and institutions.

We can begin asking ourselves harder questions, and work towards what Price calls concrete changes in our workplaces and institutions. Setting limits on overtime (which is limitless in the United States) and reevaluating 40-hour workweeks are two places they suggest we start. 

“We also need to look at expanding our social supports,” says Price. This can include better health care, standardized basic income, and reduced barriers for disability benefits, addiction support, or mental health care. “Right now we just call those people lazy and treat them as disposable. A society that cruel harms everyone within it. We need to do better.”

Finally, we can listen to our bodies. This is something we can practice every day at a personal and individual level.

We should treat our feelings as data, explains Price. “If you don’t want to do something, that feeling isn’t a moral failure—it’s an alarm bell. Most of us have been conditioned, all our lives, into ignoring every warning bell our body gives us.”

But if you’re feeling exhausted or sick, your body is trying to tell you something. Instead of pushing through and ignoring rest for fear of being seen as lazy, consider taking a pause. 

“Our first reflex is to argue with why we ‘shouldn’t’ feel that way, or attempt to push ourselves through those feelings,” they say. “Instead of taking a nap, we drink more coffee. Instead of saying no to a request, we say yes, and then hate the person who asked us. We need to let go of that initial resistance to our own needs.”

Because you’re not lazy—and neither am I. […] The truth is that it isn’t us who need to change, but the entire system and narrative.

Because you’re not lazy—and neither am I. We’re tired and burning out. Or perhaps we have barriers in place that are making it more challenging to contribute to society in the expected ways. The truth is that it isn’t us who need to change, but the entire system and narrative.

We don’t know what everyone is up against, and very rarely do we stop to ask and listen to one another’s stories. So maybe we start there.


Kayti Christian (she/her) is an Editor at The Good Trade. She has a Master’s in Nonfiction Writing from the University of London and is the creator of Feelings Not Aside, a newsletter for enneagram 4s and other sensitive-identifying people. Outside of writing, she loves hiking, reading memoir, and the Oxford comma.