In an age of intensified work, we should start politicising exhaustion

Our approach to sleep precludes the possibility that exhaustion could have an economic cause.

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Last December, a typically 21st-century story appeared online. Jack Dorsey, the chief executive of Twitter, shared news of his silent vipassana meditation retreat in Myanmar. The ten-day experience was device-free, but Dorsey wore an Apple Watch and an Oura Ring – a Finnish wellness device that tracks its wearer’s sleep pattern – in airplane mode. The entrepreneur later shared his sleep readings with followers. “The time I take away to do this gives so much back to me and my work,” he explained.

Sleep once seemed the last obstacle to the realisation of 24/7 capitalism, a period of time from which value couldn’t be extracted. Today, the US sleep technology industry, according to a 2017 estimate, is worth $30bn-$40bn. Its main evangelists reside in Silicon Valley, but employers elsewhere are using sleep monitoring devices to enhance productivity by helping ensure their workers are well rested.

Big Health, a digital company promoting wellness at work, has sold its online sleep improvement programme to LinkedIn and the NHS, while a proliferation of sleep-related books extol the benefits of an eight-hour rest. Gold-standard mattresses, supplements and heated blankets offer new remedies to the restless sleeper, but say little about the reasons behind exhaustion.

The complaint that digital screens and tracking devices may actually cause rather than cure disturbed sleep is familiar. But the history of workplace innovation suggests that it is managers, rather than employees, who create exhaustion by introducing new technologies. Francis Green, an economist at University College London, has written that technologies are “effort-biased”. As workplaces introduce innovations, the effort that employees put in also increases, leading to longer hours and fewer breaks.

It’s a pattern that recurs throughout manufacturing history. From brick-making in Roman manufacturing to Henry Ford’s production line, businesses have tried to extract maximum productivity from their workers by introducing new technologies that break jobs into efficiently-sized, measurable pieces. In the 1980s, the Japanese engineer Taiichi Ohno devised the “Toyota Minute”, a standard prescribing 57 seconds of work per minute with three seconds of downtime. This approach has been taken to new heights in Amazon warehouses, where employees complain that supervisory algorithms, which set the pace of work, create a punitive and exhausting work environment.

The relationship between new technology and work intensity helps explain why jobs have become more enervating – and workers more sleep-deprived – in recent years. The 2017 Skills and Employment Survey, a study conducted every five years in Britain, found employees are under greater pressure at work than at any time during the past 25 years. Researchers cited new technologies as a key reason for exhaustion. Tools such as digital calendar sharing make it easier to monitor employees and schedule tasks, filling up each gap in the working day, while email and chat messaging force people to bring work home. Among the 3,300 respondents, 47 per cent of men and 55 per cent of women said they “always” or “often” left work exhausted.

Fatigue and sleep disruption are perhaps most acute in the digital workplace. As Alex Wood, a researcher at Oxford University’s Internet Institute, tells me, stress related to uncertainty is common among platform workers. “When technologies put a lot of power into the hands of the client, the worker ends up having to work longer, and at night, because you’re afraid that if you don’t do a really good job, you’ll get a bad rating.” Those in the global South may be the worst affected, he adds. In areas such as south-east Asia and India, a shadow digital workforce syncs its schedules with clients in the West, causing widespread sleep disruption.

Society’s approach to sleep precludes the possibility that exhaustion could have an economic cause. Framing sleep as a biological issue, or an individual problem of excessive screen time, has enormous benefits for capitalism. It provides a lucrative market for companies to make money from time that was once uncolonised, offering an array of expensive cures: the perfect mattress, an Oura Ring, a body-clock light. Our sleep readings point to an epidemic of exhaustion, but offer little by way of an explanation. In an age of intensified work, it’s time to stop tracking sleep, and start politicising exhaustion.

Hettie O'Brien is the New Statesman’s online editor. 

This article appears in the 31 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Theresa May’s toxic legacy