With more than half of American adults fully vaccinated against Covid, employers and employees alike have turned their backs on the office. They are locked in a conflict over when they will return and, when they will, what the return will look like. But we shouldn’t just be talking about the parameters of how we do work in a post-pandemic world. We should be pushing to do less.
In truth, the debate over returning to the office is tense. Employers are used to being able to dictate when and where employees work, but we’ve now found that much of the work can be done at odd hours between distance courses and from the home office or even the comfort of one’s own home. bed.
So now there is a tense tension as to when and how many people should start commuting and what power over the matter employees can wield. Everyone’s focusing on how we’re going to make work work after such a severe shock to the system for the way it used to be. But the ultimate answer won’t lie in remote and in-person hybrid offices or even letting employees change their working hours. The way to make work work is to reduce it.
Almost everyone shifted into high gear when the pandemic hit, and we are showing no signs of abating. In April 2020, during the first major peak of Covid, homebound American workers were spending three more hours at work each day. As our commutes disappeared, we devoted a lot of the extra time not to our own lives, but to our Zoom meetings and our Slack messages. Working on a main job absorbed most of the time saved (35.3% to be exact); another 8.4 percent went to a second job. The line between work and home has blurred, and we have let work take over. No wonder a third of Americans now say they are exhausted working from home.
But as we begin to grope our way back to some sort of normalcy, it’s not enough for employees to demand that our hours return to what they were. Pre-pandemic, nearly a third of Americans timed 45 or more hours each week, with around 8 million putting on 60 or more. While Europeans have cut their working hours by around 30 percent over the past half century, ours have steadily increased. We have long needed a better work-life balance, but despite constantly trying to change our lives by waking up before dawn or exercising over lunch, this cannot. be achieved only by working less.
For Americans, who spend 7-19% more time at work than our European peers, this may seem heretical. But we have to take into account other countries that have come to this realization. This year, the Spanish government announced a pilot program to get companies to try a four-day work week without cutting anyone’s pay. Japan last month released economic policy guidelines encouraging employers to do the same. Iceland has just published the results of an experiment with a four-day week in Reykjavik that ran from 2015 to 2019 and found that productivity is not decreasing and in some cases even improving. The reduced schedule has shown “that we are not just machines that work,” said an Icelandic participant. “We are people with desires and private lives, families and hobbies. Employees said they were less exhausted and in better health.
Working too long is bad for our health, associated not only with weight gain and increased consumption of alcohol and tobacco, but also with higher rates of injury, illness and death. A study that looked at long working hours in 194 countries found a higher risk of heart disease and stroke, resulting in an estimated 745,000 attributable deaths. Long working hours are “the most important of all occupational risk factors calculated to date,” the authors wrote.
There is, however, a class divide in overwork in the United States. The demand to spend 60 hours in an office is one that is life-draining for professional and better paid workers. What appears to be a reverse problem plagues those at the bottom of the salary scale. In 2016, about a tenth of American workers worked part-time but were trying to get more hours. Despite these workers refusing to return to work, thanks to lucrative unemployment benefits, the problem is usually the opposite: people who work in retail or fast food restaurants often struggle to get enough hours. to qualify for benefits and pay their bills, just to survive.
They also struggle to put them together on a predictable schedule. Sixteen percent of American workers’ schedules fluctuate based on the needs of their employers. People who suffer from a just-in-time schedule that is never a normal 9 to 5 are not spending their off hours in their leisure time. They have second and third jobs. They hover over an app to see if they’re going to be called to work and scramble to pull together childcare and transportation services if and when they are. Employers continue to usurp their time by forcing them to be available at all times.
“The overlap between the overworked executive and the underemployed hourly worker,” said Susan Lambert, professor of social work at the University of Chicago, is “that they cannot fully engage in their personal or family lives. “. Employers steal both overtime spent in front of a computer and hours not spent earning a decent income.
If everyone worked less, however, it would be easier to spread the work evenly over more people. If white collar workers were no longer supposed or required to log 60 hours a week but 30 instead, it would be extra work for someone else. This would allow more people to work in positions with middle class incomes, especially young people looking to put their college education to good use. We could even guarantee everyone a minimum, a certain number of hours, while lowering the ceiling. This would push low-wage employers to make full use of the people they have and not treat them as interchangeable cogs to call or refuse whenever demand demands.
The goal, Dr Lambert told me, is “one reasonable job per person.” Not “two for one and a half for another”.
A reduction in work does not necessarily mean a reduction in anyone’s standard of living. In 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030 we would only need to work 15 hours a week. Technological advancements and increased productivity and prosperity would mean that we could have everything we need while doing less. But while Keynes underestimated the technological leap and wealth we would experience in the years that followed, instead of working less, we are working harder than ever.
It does not mean that we are producing more. There comes a time when we just can’t extract ourselves from useful work, no matter how much overtime we put into it. Studies show that workers’ output drops sharply after about 48 hours per week, and those who put in more than 55 hours per week, the results are worse than those who put 9 to 5 on average. Even during the pandemic, as working hours increased, production remained stable, meaning that productivity actually fell.
None of this is news. Henry Ford reduced the shifts in his auto factories in 1914 to eight hours a day without reducing workers’ wages and was rewarded with a production boom. Years later, after strikes and mass mobilization and during the same depression that inspired Keynes, the 40-hour work week was enshrined in law by the Fair Labor Standards Act. But there is nothing scientific or predestined about working eight hours a day, five days a week. It’s just the standard we’ve accepted – and increasingly surpassed.
Keynes seized the opportunity of a generational economic depression when millions of people were laid off to look ahead and imagine what the future could and should look like. Workers took advantage of the Depression to pass a law imposing a penalty on employers that forces people to work more than 40 hours a week. The pandemic is our chance to do something similar. Employees hold a lot of power over employers scrambling to restart production and negotiate what the new normal office will look like.
It is an opportunity for us to seek to better control not only where we work, but also how much we work. Americans can’t just get the right to work 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. instead of 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. We must demand longer holidays than Saturdays and Sundays. We need to get our free time back to spend it the way we want.