Mental vs Physical labor

My job is not hard work? I have had multiple discussions with people about whether what I do for a living is hard work or not. The implication goes beyond stating that what I do does not involve physical labor. Sure it is not hard physical labor but what I do for a living is hard work. When I get home at the end of the night I am mentally drained. It is at times so taxing that I cannot even relax and stop thinking about the work that I have to do. That is not even counting my ability to telecommute and continue working after I’ve had dinner.

It is a difficult subject to discuss because there are several ramifications, cultural, social and economic. My Mother always told me that if I wanted to keep a friend I should never discuss politics or religion with them, well I think this subject is up there in that category also.

I also want to include a little side note here. I hope it will illustrate the respect that I have for the people that do perform physical labor type jobs on an every day basis. What I did last night is a job that I certainly would not want to do every day. One of our ceiling fans at home became loose, so Cielo and I tackled the task of fixing it, which by the way we completed successfully. I had looked into the attic when we first bought the house and it looked crammed but not too bad. I thought going up there was not going to be the most difficult part of this little electrical endeavor.

Well I had a surprise coming to me last night when I had to literally crawl to move up there. I am still itchy from the insulation all over my arms. I spent probably 15 minutes there fixing the support for the ceiling fan with limited oxygen and limited maneuverability. So don’t think for a second that I do not have the utmost respect for people that perform physical tasks everyday for work. Also I want to note that I was a UPS loader, not for very long at all (I think about a month) but I did experience how difficult and taxing on your body it is to perform physical labor. All my jobs in the service and fast food industry I consider borderline.

Where to draw the line is the first murky decision that needs to be made to steer this discussion. I could draw a line between professional jobs that require a college degree and vice versa, but for this subject I think we can concentrate on mental vs. physical labor. It is a lot more difficult than just that, because how can we say that a doctor who performs a job that at times can be very mentally taxing does not have to also perform tasks that push the human body to its limits. Wow, when I first started to write about this topic I did not think it would be this difficult.

To simplify things lets just say that I have had people come up to me as a computer programmer and told me that a days worth of my work is not the same as their job as a carpenter building houses. I don’t have the skills to perform that job and vice versa. But at the end of the day did he work harder than I did? Is he more able to relax since he cannot perform his job while not at the site, but I am left to still think of how to make a program bug go away?

I am on call pretty much 24-7. The times for support come and go with projects, some require me to work 30 hours straight until something is completely set up and running, others a call in the middle of the night: come out of a deep sleep to remember details on how to make something work. My point is not that my job is a lot more difficult, I just want the recognition from people that perform physical jobs that what I do while not physical is still hard work.

26 comments on “Mental vs Physical labor

  1. Being waked up in the middle of the night is horrible. It also would make your work MORE physical because it changes your schedule. Isn’t the sleep schedule something physical? Doesn’t it affect your whole body?

  2. April said
    Who in the hell said something to make you upset like this John?

    No one in particular, but it has happened several times in different degrees. Most of the time I just don’t continue the discussion because the other person truely sees what I do for a living as an easy job…

  3. John, I think you were right to just drop the discussion. There would be no point in arguing.

    Arhuaco, yes, being woken up in the middle of the night is terrible especially if you can’t get back to sleep–not the case with my husband. 😉 As someone whose sleep schedule is completely messed up, I agree that it does mess up your whole body, physical as well as mental.

  4. I am doing a paper in school on physical labor vs. mental labor so I was happy to stumble onto this blog. I do physical work, housekeeping in a motel, and go to school full time. I am more drained after 5 hours of class than 6 hours of work. I was an assistant manager for a fast food chain and I found that I liked the balance of being up moving around and then I also did the bookwork and the banks. Wouldn’t it be great to have a job that balanced out your mind & your physical labor….and a paid you well! PS I am going to school for accounting & business, I hope I can find that balance!

  5. Likewise, i am doing a paper on this topic. There are days when i feel like i could be doing physical labor and be more content. There are also days in which i am glad i’m writing a paper instead of hoisting twelve foot drywall sheets in a cape cod house. I have worked both with physical and mental jobs. There are a few things to consider when comparing the two. One being age and the other is physical limitations. If there are any other things that might be considered or any other opinions i sure would like to hear them. Feel free to email me or post a response as i will be checking back frequently. Thank you.

  6. i have had the same arguement with my mother. she works at verizon as a rep and i work as a dog groomer. (yes do i have nightmares about dogs and fur.) i have done jobs where it was mental i was a loan processor and a medical biller and they were tiring also as well as worked at a factory and for the airforce. i did research on it and i found an article saying something like it requires energy to keep your body still that causes exhaustion of mental labor. im bais i suppose but when i get off work all i want to do is sleep. also before the military i had bad insomnia but once i went to boot camp doing physical training (which i believe also works you emotionally) as soon as i hit the pillow i was out (which i found interesting because falling alseep in a room with 50 people- if you’ve never done it -isnt an easy task) i think you should also consider the amount of time at a job as a factor because when you first start a job (mental or physical) you waste energy because you haven’t found the short cuts and easier ways to complete the task at hand… ps all work sucks

  7. I stumbled across this topic as a search for evidence for my partner that my work is as equally as draining as his.

    I work in an office as an administrator and also train in computing. He’s always saying that he’s so exhausted from work. He’s a tree loper. I believe that we both do equally hard work, and I do come home stressed from work, but unlike him, my job doesn’t stop there! When he gets home, he can relax and watch tele, read a book, go for a swim, etc.. Myself on the other hand, I get home after waking up the same time as him in the morning, and I have to get dinner organised, do the washing, work out the bills, do the shopping, take care of the kids and all the other housework that goes along with it.

    I’m sorry, but I don’t believe he’s physical job outweighs my mental job and the housewife job!

  8. I totally agree with the mental vs physical being a hard thing to compare. I work from home on the computer all day. I think my problem is compounded by the fact that when I am done work, work is still sitting there in the other room haunting me. That’s where balance comes in.

    I also work with my husband on his side jobs in construction on a regular basis. We just laid some hardwood flooring last night. Working all day, going to the gym then helping lay flooring til 10 pm is very exhausting. Slept so soundly for the first time in a long time tho. Maybe a good mix of both is the key!


  9. I too am doing a paper on this subject for school. The main reason I am is because I am currently going through a career change from a job that was VERY physical to one that is TOTALLY mental. I agree, it is equally as stressful to work your mind all day. And what’s more, at least physical labor can easily be left at work, try getting your stressed out mind to shut off after straining it all day.

  10. I just had an unpleasant discussion with my mother about labor as a farmer in the 30’s vs. the labor today in this world of computer technology. I agreed with her that physical labor as a farmer is very, very hard. But, then I told her mental labor in today’s world is very hard, too, since many work around the clock. I told her farming was done generally from sun up to about 8 or 9 p.m. in those days. She got incensed with me and told me that people working in the computer field don’t know what work is, and have and will never work as hard as her generation has done on the farm. I don’t agree? I feel we work just as hard but in a mental capacity and in some physical capacity, too, and we certainly work much longer hours. Was I wrong?

  11. My husband seems to think that him doing physical labor is harder than me doing Accounting as an Office Manager in the VERY BUSY Environmental Industry. I am pretty much on-call 24/7. I normally do not get calls in the middle of the night, but in the event that I do, my phone is on and ready to be answered.

    I have a 2 month old child as well as a 13 year old child. I work at least 45 hours per week. One week before I had my 2nd child, we bought a house. I have soooo much stuff. I am slowly but surely going through everything and weeding out what I want to keep and what I want to put in a garage sale.

    He says that I am LAZY because I haven’t gotten all of the stuff unpacked and put up or put into boxes to sell.

    I had my child on April 26, 2007. I started back to work from home (working 40 hours) on May 7, 2007. I took off a total of 7 business days… BUT in those days, my phone and email were constantly going off for work issues. I helped them out the whole time. I was in labor and delivery and my work cell was going off.

    He thinks that I am not tired because all I do is sit on my a$$ all day…

    Is there somewhere that I can show him that the stress of mental labor can be just as tiring or exhausting as physical labor?

    Thanks a bunch!


  12. Just like the rest of you in my family there is a constant discussion on how hard my job is. I work in the IT department which means I am constantly on the computer doing different things. I am the first of my family to go to college and get a job which does not require “physical” labor therefore there is nobody in my family that knows exactly what mental labor is all about. My husband, parents, siblings and friends are constantly reminding me that there is no reason for me to be tired and that unlike them who are always working I do nothing at my job but sit around on the computer all day. My answer to them is “I have done my share of physical work and while it has been tough it does not go home with you, my job follows me everywhere and whether I like it or not I am always thinking about it and therefore I am always working” of course this does not make them stop but fortunately for me a few weeks ago my husband went into training for his job and found out that mental work is in fact exhausting, in a few weeks my dad will go out to training for his job and will also find out what I go through everyday. This is exactly what they need to understand that mental work is just as tough and exhausting as physical work. All of those who do physical work need to be reminded that maybe, just maybe they did not continue school or decided to take the path of physical work because all that mental work was TOO MUCH WORK!!

  13. I got into an argument with my sociology teacher that my job in the army is more difficult than his job teaching and he thinks his job is harder

  14. I have never worked in a mental job done a lot of physical jobs though construction, roughnecked in the oilfield, and I have probably logged more miles with a horse under me than most people put on their cars in a year. I have to say that the physical job does not stay at the job site like most of you think. I have lain awake at night pondering problems that arose at work or thinking about bad situations on the ranch. My point is the physical job does follow people home just like any good job should.

  15. i had a phone 2 my ear 2 years,and now i do truck the end of the day they are about the same.

  16. I had a disagreement with my flatmate last night over this subject. I work 45-50 hour weeks, not including any work I take home or study for the job I do. He doesn’t think I work hard at all. I also spend an hour at the gym in the morning before I start work as an Office administrator. He is a truck driver/delivery guy. A lot of the time he is sitting driving and it is an easy run he is on as far as the driving goes and it is not a huge truck and has no trailer. I know he works hard but is his work any harder than mine. He totally dismissed my work as not being hard work at all because it is not physical. Not that he could do it. He expects me to sort out his problems with his laptop etc when that is the last thing I want to do when I get home having been on a computer all day. I am the one who does the gardens and mows the lawns on weekends, all he does is sleep. His relaxation each night is drinking. Who works harder then?

  17. I work at a bank and mentally it is the most exhautsting job I have ever had, and I have had quite a few jobs. My boyfriend does drywall and helps his boss build houses and I was just wondering… I know were are both tired when we get home at night but technically which job drains you more. I work as a teller with CIBC and it’s mathematics; which I was never good at, and the difficulty of the job is so intense some branches find it hard to keep staff more than 4 months. I would like an answer please and thank you. I have also work body is drained and my sleep is more relaxing and it is a more perfect sleep. But now with this job my brain doesn’t completely fall asleep so I feel I am even more tired the next day. Let me know in my e-mail! Thanks!

  18. lovin the posts. i think that all work is tiring. thats why we get paid – cost/benefit analysis by someone in a superior position thinking ‘i’ll delegate that, i’d rather be doing something else’. I reckon for sure ‘skills’and ‘fatigue’ are the heart of the matter here. A virtuoso musician can play complex pieces effortlessly, within minutes – where as a novice might take decades to to do the the same!
    The ‘hardness’ of the task or job has got to be to do with aptitude of person executing it. I believe we can condition ourselves to be apt at anything we choose if we have the appropriate will + determination.
    I do think that typical labor intensive jobs are more demanding – physically and mentally. The whole reason i found this blog was i was lookin up a computer engineer that gave an interview on radio about this specific subject, he worked as a sparky after his degree and found the reward/challenges much greater in the manual work. I have to agree with him.
    The reason we can stay up late or be on call etc. is cos we can. You can stay up all night writing that essay. You can play poker all night waiting for the next fire call.
    You cant drywall all night – 24/7 not a chance in a century of sundays. Believe me I’ve tried.
    All of our bodies reach some sort of equilibrium at some point, tiredness/stress/fatigue somethings got to give somewhere mental or phsical, but the point i’d like to see a response to is that un wanted consequences of (i’m gonna be bias here ) mental work can and are all the freeking time – blagged. Proper blagged. Hushed up. Deleted. Rubbed out. Started over.
    The soldier above cant do that.
    The pro basketball player cant do that.

  19. I have to agree with Ged, I have worked in the food manufacturing industry for 8 years, on my feet running around, doing close to 4-5 tonne worth of manual labor a day on my own. I have now been at my current job for a year, which is still in food, but it is my first office job in the industry. I am the Machine Operator Trainer, a lot of standing around writing on paper. Tasks also include writing out Standard Operating Procedures and improving our training system overall. When I get home, i can easily block out the mental stress when i want to. Commit my mind to another task ect. On the other hand, when i was doing the physical work i could also block out the pain of lactic acid buildups and muscle wear ect – along with the continual muscle growth that over time makes the physical work much easier.
    This topic definately comes down to what your skilled at and how much effort it requires of you in any way shape or form. Take up running for a year, then swap to biking. I garuntee the biking will still be hard at first because it uses different muscle groups. Likewise between physical and mental work. I could be the best weightlifter and the most useless mathmetician – or i could be the most useless weightlifter and the best mathmetician.
    If you find your work ‘work’ – good – that defines the meaning of the word ‘work’. If you dont like your job – quit! Your only a slave to your own decisions :)

  20. I have degrees in multiple disciplines and ive done the office thing for good money. its a clock watcher job. becuase even though busy you can stilll go home at end of business. Howvever….as many people on this blog has pointed out it doesent stop there. it almost always carries over to your private life. i have a question for you all. its a debate ive been having with 4 people. thats right 4. what ist would you all prefer. job as a pscyhologist, secondary teacher, primary teacher, office work or physical work? just curious to hear your thoughts. you dont have to analyse it to mush just an asnwer and why would be good?

  21. You are so right on. I have to hear all the time how people behind desks, or who don’t do physical labor do not work. I was so glad to see your posting. There are so many of us out here who are so disrespected as “not really working”. The stress of my supposed “non-working ” job almost killed me. People need to know that work is not limited to the physical. Actually, it’s a proven fact that stressful jobs have more impact on physical health than physical jobs. Thank you for the post!

  22. Just want to throw in a few points to this debate. But first off, I want to say that I will never say that Mental labor isn’t work. And I acknowledge that it can be stressful and taxing.
    First off, at least in my experience, Mental labor isn’t exclusive to desk jobs. I’m an electrician and I can assure you that there is a BIG mental side to doing our job. And there is usually a lot of stress involved in it too. And taking the job home is something that EVERY conscientious employee is going to do be they physical or mental labor.
    That being said I’d like to know how a mental labor job is supposed to be more taxing on the body than a physical one? Add in the physical aspect of the job and you get a 65 year old with a broken down back, knees, shoulders who just grins and bears it because it’s not going away. That’s if he makes it to 65.
    Those of you who are saying that your mental jobs involve stress thus you are more likely to have physical issues should rethink that. I didn’t even add in the danger involved on any construction site. Death isn’t uncommon from accidents on the job, or disabling injuries.

  23. hi, my opinion is this- my grandparents were hard labourers, went on to have 10 children and lived till 80 plus. my parents become teachers and did a combination of mental and physical work, albeit at a medium degree. I went on to do a degree and difficult CFA exams and worked as a management consulting – where the mental work is very very intense. And i have to do groceries, wake up for the babies at night, keep the house clean and manage the kids homework, drive 2 hours to work etc. The thing is, humans have developed their ‘physical work’ overtime – it become sort of regulated after centuries of civilisation. Mental work is something new to most of us. There is little practice on it and before we knew it, there are computers and mass storage and data processsing, crazy hours of googling and slide presentation etc. Mental work requires humans to ‘hold a lot’ as opposite to ‘let go’ in their minds because it a) gets the brain very wired b) rarely ends at the end of day. I see how labourers call it a day ( we are talking about standard labour – not those toiling through the night to pay off some extraordinary debts/hardships) – the routine is there. For mental workers, we are still at the frontiers of change. As technology comes in, we adapt ourselves to processing more things, getting more wired and responding to fast changes around us. My say is, both are taxing if not regulated. The mental workers are facing a very unregulated environment, so the toll on mental and subsequently physical health can be greater (if measured in hours spent not enjoying food, sleep and other natural things as the mind is always over engaged)…

  24. As I read this article it brings me back to about 15 years ago, to a conversation with my wife at that time. Which can go hand in hand with this discussion, the topic of people with different occupations being smarter or dumber than one another. I told my wife that it’s a difficult thing to determine since on one hand you have the person with a 240 IQ who obtained 3 doctorate degrees from the universities of MIT; UCLA and Oxford. All of these graduated top of the class, then went on to be an Astro-physicist for NASA. Then you have the person who dropped out of high school, later to receive an GED and working at the local Jiffy-lube doing oil changes. Who do you think is smarter? The 1st person or the 2nd person? Most would pick the 1st because of his IQ and his doctorates. Which isn’t all so true, there is some things you ask the 1st person in the category of car maintenance, social edequate in common market places (supermarkets, fast food restaurants, etc.). The 1st person wouldn’t know, while 2nd person would know because the 2nd person would have experience in that surroundings. I guess what this comes down to is, like in the television show ” The Big Bang Theory” just cause Sheldon is a doctorate of physics, doesn’t make him smarter than Penny. Nor does it mean Sheldon (mental strenuous labor) works more than Penny (physical labor) at the Cookie Factory as a waitress. 1st person /Sheldon and 2nd person /Penny can’t be compared since the 2 of these people work in different fields of occupation which neither is experienced or familiar with both occupations.

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