Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Worked to Death

Overwork and unemployment side-by-side. Tell me again why we've invented all these fossil-fuel powered machines and automation. It's the ultimate Rebound Effect - the more we can do, the harder and harder we have to work. Why even bother inventing anything?
BERTRAND RUSSELL, the English philosopher, was not a fan of work. In his 1932 essay, “In Praise of Idleness”, he reckoned that if society were better managed the average person would only need to work four hours a day. Such a small working day would “entitle a man to the necessities and elementary comforts of life.” The rest of the day could be devoted to the pursuit of science, painting and writing.

Russell thought that technological advancement could free people from toil. John Maynard Keynes mooted a similar idea in a 1930 essay, "Economic possibilities for our grandchildren", in which he reckoned people might need work no more than 15 hours per week by 2030. But over 80 years after these speculations people seem to be working harder than ever. The Financial Times reports today that Workaholics Anonymous groups are taking off. Over the summer Bank of America faced intense criticism after a Stakhanovite intern died.


Adam Smith reckoned that

[T]he man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly, not only preserves his health the longest, but in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of works.
Get a Life (Economist)
Longer working hours seem to lead to higher premature mortality. (For stats nerds: the strength of the relationship is significant, with an r-squared of 0.2). The implication that over-work is bad for you chimes with lots of research which links long working hours with poor health. Stress, for example, can contribute to range of problems like heart disease and depression. That was, indeed, what the philosopher Bertrand Russell argued back in the 1930s. Overwork, said Russell, led to "frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia".

The pattern is not completely clear. The outlying figures to the right are those for South Korea. The country is famed for its long working hours, but also its healthy food, which may lower the risk of things like heart attacks and thereby reduce premature death rates. On the other side, Hungarians seem to get really stressed out at work: despite working relatively short hours, their PYLL is high. 

If there is such a relationship between working hours and health, then shorter work hours might actually raise a person's total lifetime work by allowing them to live and work for longer. You can use that as an excuse next time you want to slack off early. 
We need a slow but steady move toward a 30-hour week for all workers. This will help solve a lot of connected problems: overwork, unemployment, overconsumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other and simply to enjoy life. 

People working shorter hours generally have a smaller ecological footprint. If you are tied to the workplace for 40-plus hours, you don’t have much time for the rest of your life. So things have to speed up. You travel by plane or car instead of train, foot or bike. Convenience-driven consumption takes a heavy toll on the environment. 

Some say it can’t be done because wages are too low. So let’s raise wages. No one should have to work long hours just to get by. Some say it’s uncompetitive. But there’s no match between average working hours and the strength of a country’s economy. The Netherlands and Germany have a shorter workweek than the United States and Britain. But the Dutch and German economies are stronger, not weaker. Workers on shorter hours tend to be more productive hour-for-hour. They are under less stress, they get sick less often and they make a more loyal and committed workforce. 

We ended slavery, built the railways and won votes for women. All these once seemed impossible. We can do the same for working hours. It’s only a matter of time.

While shorter hours defined much of labor history, the struggle hit a successful plateau during the New Deal when the Fair Labor Standards Act (1938) established the eight-hour day and 40-hour week as the official law of the land. Although many people continued to try to decrease the work week to 35 hours in order to share work and increase leisure, the fight seemed to end. 

Then it reversed. Slowly we trashed collective bargaining, ran roughshod over the Fair Labor Standards Act, and exchanged our desire for freedom for the cult of overwork. Now we respond to every ping of technology, looking longingly at those who still work just eight-hour days. “I’m busy” is our boring mantra; “so much to do” is our futile Greek chorus. 

Now we live with a terrible irony. Although we believe we live in a work world defined by the eight-hour day and other progressive occupational victories, we actually don’t. We have only relics and illusions of those victories, which may be more harmful than not having them at all. It would take 20 years of struggle to get back to where we once were. Overwork is a public problem that should be part of a public conversation. 

“Is it time to rethink the 40 hour week?” Yes, it’s time to think about bringing it back.
Rethinking the 40-Hour Work Week (New York Times)
BEIJING - Having turned off the office lights at 2 am, Wang Yue wearily trudged home. He and his colleagues spent four days in a row working overtime last week because of an urgent project.

"To be honest, I feel exhausted from overwork. I suffer from various kinds of work-related illness, such as loss of sleep, numbness in the neck and shoulders and neurasthenia (a psychological disorder characterized by chronic fatigue and weakness, loss of memory, and generalized aches and pains)," said Wang, a 29-year-old employee in the marketing department of an international pharmaceutical company in Beijing.

It is true that thousands of millions of Chinese jobseekers dream of landing a well-paid job, like Wang's, with an overseas company. However, the sudden death of a young female worker in mid-April rang loud alarm bells and some of them started to change their minds.

Having been employed in the Shanghai office of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), one of the world's leading accounting firms, for just six month, Pan Jie, a 25-year-old young woman died from acute meningitis. She had just graduated from Shanghai Jiao Tong University with a master's degree last year.
Overwork takes its toll on staff health (China Daily)


  1. About the creating cars and such and the harder we have to work in response to what we create etc...

    I think Ivan Illich is a natural place to explore the consequences of all of this work we're creating (and the energy it requires etc...)

    Energy and Equity by Ivan Illich (PDF)

    A good read, but like Ran Prieur wrote it, reading Illich is like looking into the sun.

  2. Thanks for the link! I love Illich's work. For me, though, reading Lewis Mumford is like looking into the sun. If I could half the writer and scholar he was I'd consider myself a success.

    1. Yeah, I'm just now getting into Mumford (recommendation from Derrick Jensen)... seems to be good stuff. :)


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