Working hours: How to take life easy

Stay happy with fewer working hours

Gemma Rose puts the case for the right to not devote ourselves entirely to our jobs by cutting back on working hours.

“We have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy,” wrote John Maynard Keynes in his essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. Keynes believed that by the year 2030 all our economic problems would be solved, that automation would free up our time and we’d be working a 15-hour work week. Our worries would be focused on what to do with this leisure time. So adamant was the belief – shared by other economists, intellectuals and trade union leaders – that the work day would be substantively shortened, that Life magazine in 1964 dedicated a two part series to it with The Emptiness of Too Much Leisure and The Task Ahead: How to Take Life Easy.

Reduce your workload and you get penalized
Except that hasn’t really happened. We are working longer hours, with more interruptions and demands on our time. Organisations expect our total devotion, just as cults do, and if you don’t submit, you get punished. Netflix expects ‘A’ players in their team: if you are adequate, that’s enough to get you fired. If you want flexible hours, you may suffer stigmatization, as illustrated in a study by Professors Joan Williams and Mary Blair-Loy at Stanford University, published in 2012. If you ask to reduce your workload, you get penalized for it, as a recent study by Erin Reid at Boston University highlighted.

We live in a society which perpetuates the ‘ideal worker’ myth, where not only are we expected to work harder, but also be smarter. The strivers are rewarded whereas those that believe there is more to life than being a slave to your desk are perceived as idlers. Yet, we also live in a society where one part of the population is over-worked and another can’t even get a job.

There is an increasing amount of evidence to show that working too much is not good for us, whether you are in a ‘bullshit job’ (a term that has been academically coined) or in a job you love. Authors from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health looked at a range of studies that suggested that employees who work long hours have a 40% increased risk in coronary heart disease. Too much work also kills productivity and is unhealthy for the environment.

Self improvement - Stay happy with fewer working hoursThe Washington Post reported that even though American productivity seems enormous, once it becomes proportional to productivity per hours worked, the US ranks much lower, even below countries that have a shorter work day. Concerning sustainability, the UK think tank the New Economics Foundation found in their book Time on Our Side: Why we need a shorter working week that having a growing economy cannot be reconciled with environmental sustainability.

And we’re not happy.

Of course, we seem to strike a better chord concerning work-life balance here in Belgium than in the US or the UK, but that’s not to say that it’s an uncommon phenomenon or that it’s not on the rise.

Working hours
A past performance review inspired this article. I was doing a good job, I worked on average 40 hours a week but I had requested to reduce my workload (not my working hours). To my surprise, my position was in jeopardy partly because I was not considered ambitious enough. It made me ask the question: what is the purpose of work? If we view work from a purely economic standpoint, work is meant to serve the needs of society, and once that is done we can take a break. But what has happened is a burgeoning of jobs which really don’t serve society, and in fact serve no one. As Tim Wu from the New Yorker writes in You Really Don’t Need to Work So Much: “But in white-collar jobs, the amount of work can expand indefinitely through the generation of false necessities – that is, reasons for driving people as hard as possible that have nothing to do with real social or economic needs.”

Perhaps for the time being, one of the ways to work less is to ‘fudgel’, that is to pretend to work when you’re not really working. But this seems dishonest. Instead, I would rather support the movement for a shorter working week, such as at the British magazine, The Idler’s essay Bring on the four-day working week.

“We work to have leisure, on which happiness depends,” said Aristotle, leisure being the pursuit of arts, reading, playing sport, philosophy, or perhaps the simple merriment of idleness.

Back in 1930, John Maynard Keynes had a vision of the life we would be living in one hundred years’ time: “We shall honour those who can teach us how to pluck the hour of the day virtuously and well, the delightful people who are capable of taking direct employment in things, the lilies of the field who toil not, neither do they spin.”

How I wish he was right.