In this week’s New Yorker magazine Cal Newport asks one of the most pressing questions of our age – Why Do We Work Too Much?
From the story:
In 2013, a Japanese news reporter named Miwa Sado died suddenly, soon after covering two consecutive elections. An investigation by government officials classified the tragedy as a case of karoshi, or death by overwork. Sado had clocked a hundred and fifty-nine hours of official overtime in the preceding month. When her body was found, she was still clutching her mobile phone.
Asian countries seem particularly afflicted with a culture of long hours. Vice had an interesting report about the 996 phenomena in China. This is where tech workers work 9 am until 9 pm 6 days a week. It is ironic that communist China has embraced a work culture that would make even the most ardent western capitalist blush.
China now faces an ageing population and a shrinking workforce. In response, Beijing now allows three children per couple. But the issue is young Chinese people are too knackered to even find a partner never mind have kids.
Over in South Korea, this report covers the issue of long working hours for delivery drivers. Many drivers are working 90 hour weeks. The guy in the video started work at 4 am and did not finish till after 10 at night. All this has the negative side effect that delivery drivers have a bad habit of dropping dead.
The South Korean government have tried to stop the long hours culture with novel ideas like cutting the power to computers at certain times.
One of the ironies of the modern world is as people get richer they tend to work more hours. In the 19th and early 20th Century, rich people had loads of leisure time. After all, the whole point of being rich was that you did not need to work. Nowadays this attitude has flipped with professionals like doctors, solicitors, accountants etc working longer hours than ever. The hustle culture becomes a badge of honour.
The pandemic has made people rethink their priorities in life. Working from home has made people realise how much time they spent commuting and at time-wasting work activities like pointless meetings. There is a massive skill shortage at the moment as quite a few people have had the scales fall from their eyes and exclaimed a collective ‘feck this’. They call it the Great Resignation and it is becoming a huge issue for a lot of organisations.
Locally our health service is on the verge of collapse but it is due to get a lot worse. A lot of doctors and nurses as exhausted dealing with the pandemic so there will be increasing amounts of early retirements. Doctors have what the Yanks call ‘f*ck you money’. They are paid well so it is really easy to retire early or switch to doing locum work a day or two a week. Likewise, nurses can switch to agency work and find they can earn the same salary with 2 or 3 days of agency work a week.
Personally, I have been working an average of 4 hours a day for the past 15 years. I work for myself at home so once you remove the commute, meetings, bureaucracy, admin etc I get done more in 4 hours than most people get done in 8 hours. My work is very mentally taxing and find if I do too many hours I burn out.
Research shows that most UK workers are doing less than 3 hours of actual work on a normal day anyway. Most of the day is consumed with activities like:
Checking social media: 47% (44 minutes)
Reading news websites: 45% (1 hour 5 minutes)
Discussing out of work activities with colleagues: 38% (40 minutes)
Making hot drinks: 31% (17 minutes)
Smoking breaks: 28% (23 minutes)
Text/instant messaging: 27% (14 minutes)
Eating snacks: 25% (8 minutes)
Making food in office: 24% (7 minutes)
Making calls to partner/friends: 24% (18 minutes)
Searching for new jobs: 19% (26 minutes)
This is the benefit of working from home. People can get on with the actual work without all the pretence of the office environment.
Now I know work from home has its own issues. I predict the hybrid model is here to stay.
When you focus only on time this leads to perverse disincentives like productive employees getting punished by giving them more work.
The focus for all organisations should be to work hard and go home. I personally think the 5 hour workday would be more than enough for most people. If your employer is fixed to the long hours mindset I would be exploring a career change or looking at the possibility of going freelance or working for yourself.
I would be the first to acknowledge I am in a privileged position to be able to control my work life. If you are working checkout at Tesco or doing a hospital shift then you have less control. Some people also really like their job and get a lot of fulfilment from work.
If you are deciding whether to buy something new you could do the sums to see how much you have to work to pay for it, not forgetting to add 50% for taxes and other costs. If you are tempted by the new iPhone it might be less tempting when you realise it is 50 hours of work. You might decide it is better to forgo the new phone and spend the 50 hours drinking tea and reading a book instead.
For me, I keep a deliberately modest lifestyle so I don’t need to work long hours. I think this approach is better for the planet as well. Degrowth is a popular concept for dealing with environmental issues. Working less and consuming less stuff is better for us and the planet.
I help to manage Slugger by taking care of the site as well as running our live events. My background is in business, marketing and IT. My politics tend towards middle-of-the-road pragmatism, I am not a member of any political party. Oddly for a member of the Slugger team, I am not that interested in daily politics, preferring to write about big ideas in society. When not stuck in front of a screen, I am a parkrun Run Director.