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Working Too Hard for the Money

By on September 12, 2013

Success at work is important. But what does it cost your health?

Remember the legend of John Henry, the ‘‘steel driving man’’? According to the story, John Henry was an African-American railroad worker in the late 1800s whose fame emerged from his participation in a steel-driving contest in which he defeated a steam-powered drill.  A close contest throughout, John Henry was forced to gather his great strength to overpower the mechanical drill, but died soon after his win from mental and physical fatigue.

Yes, he was successful in his chosen profession and task, but was it worth the cost?

John Henry was in the prime of his life, presumably at an age when he should be most productive at work and most successful in providing for his family.  Many of us, only think about our bodies and health when we can’t work, have sex, or do other things that are important to us.  For many black men, health is not so much about eating, exercise or going to the doctor, but health is defined by what our bodies can do and withstand, not tests we get when we go to the doctor.

This is often the norm, an unhealthy norm.  John Henry used his body to achieve a great feat; ignoring the damage to his body to be successful.  Similarly, we define “good men” as those who help to provide for themselves, their children and their partners; we see career and educational ambition as critical values for men who are admired, and spouses, parents, children, employers, peers and others tend to agree.  Yes, it’s nice if they also look healthy but we tend to admire a man who handles his responsibilities; even if he’s not quite able to fit into the suit he wore to the prom.  But how do we deal with these pressures?  Do we eat differently, drink more, smoke different things, or engage in risky behaviors?

john-henryCollectively, we are not terribly creative when we’re under stress; we do what has worked for us before or what we see others do.  As James Jackson at the University of Michigan has found [in his development of the Environmental Affordances Model], how we cope with stress is shaped by what is readily available to us and what is considered appropriate for us as black men.  Researchers like Sherman James at Duke University, who coined the term John Henryism, has found that African American men often perceive that there is a limited range of strategies for achieving success in key life roles.

While you may think of this as just a fable, John Henry also provides an important mirror for black men.  We have to recognize that not all problems can be solved by working harder and longer.  We have to manage stress in healthy ways.  At some point we also have to reevaluate what is important and make tough and unpopular choices for the good of our health and families.


Derek M. Griffith, PhD is Associate Professor of Medicine, Health and Society at Vanderbilt University. He is also a regular contributor to Healthyblackmen.org.

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