What is work ethic?

Last updated: July 23, 2024
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Kai Dickerson
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What is work ethic?
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If you’re looking for a solid definition of “work ethic,” then you’ve come to the right place.

Maybe you read that term in a job description and want a better understanding of what it ‌means. Perhaps you’re looking for ways to improve your work ethic. Or maybe you’re just curious about the topic.

Whatever the case, we’ve got your back.

Below, we’ll cover exactly what work ethic is, specific steps to improve yours, and examples of work ethic in the real world.

Let’s start with the basics.

What is work ethic?

In short, work ethic is a self-commitment to honor your job, take pride in hard work, and deliver the best results possible — even when you don’t feel like it.

To better understand this concept, we need to describe what business author Stephen Covey defines as “Proactivity.”

In the classic book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Covey describes two types of people: reactive and proactive.

Reactive people perform based on external factors, like the weather, life problems, or how others treat them. If life isn’t going as expected, reactive people will simply stop performing, blaming circumstances for their results.

In simpler terms, reactive people drive their decisions based on how they feel.

On the other hand, proactive people take responsibility for their own actions, behaviors, and decisions. They put their values above their feelings and perform based on a set of moral principles rather than what mood they may be in.

It’s this values-first approach that’s crucial.

Work ethic is much more than simply putting in some extra hours at the office or pushing too hard. It’s all about being accountable, dependable, and self-driven — acting in advance of problems instead of just reacting.

Work ethic also involves:

  • Taking the initiative at work

  • Following through with projects

  • Meeting deadlines

  • Collaborating effectively with team members

  • Staying enthusiastic

  • Plus much more

At the end of the day, having a strong work ethic comes down to being proactive in the workplace.

Now, before we step into real-world examples, let’s debunk a major misconception about work ethic.

Work ethic vs. “workaholic” behavior

Many people confuse hard work with work addiction.

They say things like, “I’m just so busy because I want to get as much done as possible," or "Sleep is for the weak.” Sadly, these are the same people who complain about feeling too tired, anxious, and stressed out to enjoy life.

The point?

Working hard is great. Jeopardizing your health is not so great.

Work ethic involves understanding your limits and keeping a healthy work-life balance so you don’t burn yourself out.

It’s better to go home before you start feeling tired rather than pushing yourself too hard and making mistakes.

Why are work ethic skills important in the workplace?

First, hard work almost always wins over talent and skills.

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of an employer for a moment.

Who would you prefer to work with? A not-so-talented but responsible, hard-working person who always over-delivers? Or a talented yet careless employee you need to constantly push and motivate to do the work?

The answer is obvious, right?

Now, this doesn’t mean talent isn’t important, but developing solid work ethic skills is essential if you want to climb the career ladder and contribute to building a better, healthier workplace for you and your co-workers.

“The guy who is willing to hustle the most is going to be the guy that just gets that loose ball.”

  • Will Smith

Besides, work ethic is one of the first qualities every employer notices and perhaps the last skill that’ll keep you from losing your job when everything else falls to pieces.

Other benefits of having a strong work ethic include:

  • Pride: Delivering your best work will likely make you proud of yourself.

  • Job satisfaction: Work ethic and motivation are associated with job satisfaction.

  • Higher demand: Employers often look for people with strong work ethics.

  • Respect: Working ethically will help you earn the respect of your co-workers and managers.

In short, work ethic has a direct influence on the quality of the work you do. When embraced, it allows you to be more productive, build a better reputation, and feel happier in the workplace.

What are work ethic examples?

Now that you understand what work ethic is and why it matters, the question becomes: what does work ethic look like in the real world?

The character traits of a person with a great work ethic include the following:

Self-motivation

Self-motivated people are motivated internally. These individuals don’t require any nudging from the outside to perform at their best. They create goals for themselves and don’t rest until those goals are completed.

Those who have this personality trait often make good managers, freelancers, or business owners. They set internal goals and use their resilience and grit to accomplish them.

Self-motivated people understand their work habits, strengths, and weaknesses.

You can become more self-motivated by setting small, achievable goals for yourself. Try to find good role models and split larger projects into micro-tasks if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed.

Independence

When discipline and responsibility are part of who you are, you don’t need close supervision to make sure you get the job done. People with a positive work ethic often have more independence at work.

Independent workers don’t need to be micromanaged and prefer a hands-off management style. But this doesn’t mean they can’t be team players. They tend to do their daily tasks at their own pace and to a high standard.

If you are comfortable working independently, you may perform well in a range of settings, such as remote workplaces or on the road.

If you’re independent at work, you’ll probably also have strong problem-solving skills.

Initiative

​​Someone with an excellent work ethic usually has initiative.

But what does this mean? It means that you’re more likely to find solutions to problems yourself.

People with initiative come up with new ideas and consider any obstacle a challenge to overcome. They solve problems and often complete tasks that no one else wants to do.

Here’s an example:

Picture a retail environment. The store is quiet, and one team member is scrolling on their phone. On the other hand, another employee is using the opportunity to set up displays and clean shelves without being asked.

The second person in this scenario has initiative.

Punctuality

Respecting deadlines and finishing tasks on time are strong indicators of a good work ethic.

Good punctuality means a more productive employee. Those who are punctual get to work on time and go the extra mile.

People with this trait have excellent time management skills. Their admirable work ethic and reliability often earn them priority for shifts and promotions.

If you want to work on your punctuality, try to give yourself more time to get ready before work. You may need to change your bedtime or catch an earlier bus.

If you start arriving early for your shifts and meetings, being on time will soon become a habit.

Commitment

Also known as professional integrity, commitment goes together with punctuality. It’s seen as genuine dedication to your job and shows that you share the company’s culture and values.

People with commitment take their role seriously. They don’t turn up for work and count down the hours until they get to go home — instead, they do their best every day.

If you have a positive attitude, you’ll probably be more committed. Finding a job you love or an employer that values your contribution and pays you fairly can make you more motivated and committed.

Cooperation

Another common trait for people with a good work ethic is teamwork. This is a soft skill that you can develop in different work environments or through education, volunteering, or playing sports.

If you’re cooperative, you’ll understand that a workplace is a team environment. You’ll support your co-workers and go out of your way to help others.

Rather than avoiding hard work, cooperative people say "yes." They can work well with others from a variety of backgrounds.

If you feel like you’re part of the team, cooperation will come naturally.

Organization

Those with a good work ethic know the importance of strong organizational skills. It’s easier to work on tasks and tick off goals when they’re clear and manageable.

Being organized starts with a tidy workspace. After all, it’s easier to find what you need when you have all of your equipment and supplies neatly organized and accessible. Part of being organized is also showing up on time — you need to be ready to start your shift each day.

People who have organizational skills know how to manage a schedule. For example, an office assistant won’t double-book appointments, and an electrician will be realistic about how long each job will take.

How can you improve your work ethic?

Now that you know the importance of a good work ethic, it’s time to start honing your skills. Let’s cover six practical ways to do this.

1. Set goals

Setting a clear goal will keep you motivated when facing challenges and difficulties in your life.

To do this, you need to know what motivates you. That could be money, recognition, or industry experience.

Start by asking yourself:

  • Why do I want this particular job?

  • What could I save money for?

  • What can I get out of this opportunity other than my salary?

  • What do I want out of life?

Though simple, these questions may help you find an exciting goal that will help you work harder and more efficiently.

By knowing exactly where you’re heading, you can stay focused and motivated, even when you’re having a bad day or facing an unpleasant challenge.

2. Take care of your health

To stay focused at work, you’ll need to stay healthy.

Taking care of your body won’t only make you feel happier but will also improve your overall efficiency.

In short, health comes down to the following:

  • Eating better: Eat regular meals (don’t skip your lunch break), cut down on junk food, and eat more veggies.

  • Sleeping better: Know how much sleep you need. For adults, the recommended amount of sleep is between seven and nine hours each night.

  • Drinking water: Keeping yourself hydrated during the day can help you think clearly and stay focused.

  • Exercising often: By exercising regularly, you’ll feel more energetic. Exercising can also help improve your self-esteem.

By practicing these four things, you’ll develop a stronger discipline in your life and, thus, improve your work ethic too.

3. Focus on “less, but better”

Most people believe that work ethic is all about doing more, but that’s not necessarily true.

Sometimes trying to do more just drags us down, as you need to distribute your time and energy on multiple tasks rather than focusing on just one thing.

Before taking on a particular job, ask your employer what “success” means for them and focus on achieving that particular result.

This will avoid potential misunderstandings and will allow you to channel your energy into what really matters.

Remember, work-life balance can improve your productivity. If the company is flexible, you can talk about different work options.

For example, if you’re traveling two hours to get to work, you may be able to work remotely. Without the stress of a long commute, you’ll have more time — and hopefully, motivation — to do your job.

4. Find a job you love

If you’re feeling demotivated, it may be because you’re stuck in a job you hate. The answer may be as simple as finding a new employer.

For example, if you’re a creative type, sitting in front of a computer doing data entry all day may leave you feeling flat. Instead, you may want to become a graphic designer.

Or, if you love numbers and computing but are employed in retail, a data entry job could be perfect for you.

Upskilling or going back to school could be an alternative to finding new employment.

Thinking of changing industries? Take our job quiz to see what career would be right for you.

5. Remove distractions

There are more distractions today than there have ever been before. Learning to ignore activities that aren’t job-related can improve your productivity.

For example, technology can cause our minds to go off task. If you’re like the 70% of adults in the U.S. who use Facebook, you spend time on this platform almost every day.

One way to stop yourself from checking your social media accounts is to turn off your phone while you’re at work.

Habits can be hard to break, but it gets easier over time. For instance, if you have a hard time staying off social media, you can reward yourself by logging in to your accounts during your scheduled breaks.

Focusing on specific tasks will help you be more efficient, and your work ethic and work satisfaction will improve as a result.

6. Look for a mentor

When you have someone to look up to, you may be inspired to work harder.

For example, you may have a senior manager who’s worked their way up the career ladder. If they’re willing to be a mentor, you can gain valuable advice from them. They can support you by sharing tips for improvement.

If there are people who inspire you, think about how they work. Is there anything you can learn from them? For instance, are they organized, do they always get to meetings early, or do they have a positive attitude?

Your mentor doesn’t have to be someone from your organization. Find someone in your life who inspires you and observe their habits, choices, and commitment to work.

How do you know if you have a strong work ethic?

The best way to judge a person’s work ethic is by their actions. By analyzing yourself, you can understand your current level of work ethic and identify areas of improvement.

Start by asking yourself some of these questions:

  • Do you always show up for work on time?

  • Do you try your best even when you’re tired, sick, or just not feeling in the mood?

  • Do you regularly volunteer to help your teammates and managers when needed?

  • Do you focus on work at work rather than allowing yourself to get distracted?

  • Do you accept accountability when you make mistakes?

  • Do you reliably deliver what was promised when you said that you would?

You can also ask colleagues, previous bosses, family members, and friends to give you some feedback and help you find any blind spots.

Being conscious of your strengths and weaknesses will help you understand where to put your attention and develop a more solid (and authentic) work ethic.

Work ethic can be learned

No one is born with a strong work ethic. You develop it as you go and hone it over time.

There are learning opportunities you can seize to strengthen your work ethic, such as taking on more responsibility at work, enrolling in courses that’ll propel you farther in your career, and seeking new ways to be useful to others.

There are a few traits that people with a strong work ethic have. For example, they’re usually self-motivated, independent, and organized.

Workplaces are team environments, so a willingness to cooperate is also essential to success. Additionally, punctuality, commitment, and initiative will help you get ahead.


Ready to improve your work ethic and find a job you love? Check out what other job seekers are sharing about their job-hunting process, and join the Jobcase community today. Need a job? Head to our job board.

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J. Wade Hannon
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The so-called "work ethic" is a myth perpetuated by the ruling class to trick workers into thinking that their interests are aligned with the bosses, not with their fellow workers. Solidarity is a much more valuable idea and practice to have. See iww.org for useful ideas.

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