Kai Dickerson
Community Specialist
Posted April 30, 2021

What is work ethic? A simple definition (Plus 5 real-world examples)

Learn what work ethic is, why it matters, and practical steps to develop a stronger work ethic.
Kai Dickerson
Community Specialist
What is work ethic? A simple definition (Plus 5 real-world examples)
Jump to section

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 actually 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 five 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 person: 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.

(Image Source)

You see, this is 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 the 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.

Recent studies revealed that employee burnout had been steadily growing over the last couple of years.

(Image Source)

Besides, roughly 75% of employees expressed a high interest in work-life balance support, meaning that finding a happy balance is a real issue nowadays.

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 will keep you from losing your job when everything else falls to pieces.

(Image Source)

Other benefits of having a strong work ethic include:

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

  • Job satisfaction: Quality work ethics are highly 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?

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

  • Self-motivation: You can always tell when someone’s consumed by what they do. That person typically doesn’t require any nudging from the outside to perform at their best.
  • 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 high work ethic often have more independence at work.

  • Initiative: Stemming from acting independently, you’re also more bound to take matters into your own hands and propose innovative ideas without being asked to.

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

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

How can you improve your work ethic?

Now that you have a strong sense of how fundamental a good work ethic is, it’s time to start honing your own. Let’s cover three practical ways to do it.

1. Set a clear, exciting goal

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

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 body

To make your greatest contribution at work, you need to stay healthy.

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

In short, health comes down to:

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

  • Sleeping better: Try to sleep at least six hours per night, as staying awake for 17-19 hours is the same as being slightly drunk.

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

  • Exercising often: By exercising often, you’ll feel more energetic and happy at work.

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.

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 manager 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 would propel you farther in your career, and seeking new ways to be useful to others.

Ready to get started? Check out what other job seekers are sharing about their job-hunting process and join the Jobcase community today.

Kai Dickerson
Community Specialist


J. Wade Hannon

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.

Related Articles
1 Comment
Jun 17, 2021

8 proven ways to stop procrastination

Elyssa Duncan
Community Specialist
Apr 2, 2021

What are hard skills and how do I highlight them on my resume?

Kai Dickerson
Community Specialist
1 Comment
Jun 15, 2021

What are the benefits of flexibility in the workplace?

Eleana Bowman
Community Specialist