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How working less could help you achieve more

A Japanese lesson in the paradox of productivity.

In Japan, the virtues of konjou and gaman – grit and endurance – have long been considered crucial for success. But the death of a star worker at the nation’s biggest advertising agency has prompted a rethink of a culture of overwork that commonly subjects employees to more than 100 hours of overtime per month.

The Japanese government is now seeking to pass legislation to limit overtime. The English-speaking world is waking up to the problems of overwork, too. A new book – Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a Silicon Valley consultant and visiting scholar at Stanford University – argues that by working less you can accomplish more.

Around the world, the conventional wisdom that working longer hours leads to superior results is being challenged. “Even in today’s 24/7, always-on world,” Pang writes, “we can learn how to blend work and rest together in ways that make us smarter, more creative and happier.”

Matsuri Takahashi was gifted, attractive and successful. Fresh out of Tokyo University, she landed a job at the Dentsu advertising agency and seemed on course for a life on the corporate fast track. Yet it wasn’t long before Takahashi, crushed by long office hours, began posting about her struggles on Twitter. “My body is trembling . . . I just can’t do this,” she wrote, following up with: “I have lost all feeling except the desire to sleep.”

On Christmas Day 2015, the 24-year-old fell to her death from the third storey of her company’s dormitory building. Labour standards officials recorded the cause as karoshi – or “death by overwork”.

Takahashi’s case resonated in Japan, a country that was already grappling with statistics showing chronic overtime to be the norm. More than a year later, barely a day goes by without a TV chat show inviting scholars and celebrities to brainstorm ways to get Japanese people to work less.

The implications of this culture of overwork go beyond workers’ sanity. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to cap overtime at a yearly average of 60 hours a month – in a labour reform programme expected to be adopted this year – envisions higher productivity as a benefit. Meanwhile, some corporations are beginning to ask an unusual (even heretical) question for hard-working Japan: can taking things easier be a recipe for success?

There are some surprising answers to this in Pang’s book. The problems that Japan faces may sound extreme, but they are in no way unique, viewed alongside Western business environments where, as Pang writes, “The proliferation of mobile and digital tools . . . [lets] you work anywhere and any time, [lets] work follow you everywhere.”

Pang argues that rest is a crucial source of creative vigour and that slogging through workplace fatigue – a mantra in Japan and the United States alike – leads not only to burnout but inferior performance. “Rest is not work’s adversary,” he writes. “Rest is work’s partner.”

Pang cites an array of academic studies and creative luminaries to support his argument. What did Charles Darwin, Ingmar Bergman, Charles Dickens and Henri Poincaré have in common? Four hours: roughly the length of time they felt they could productively devote to work in a single day. This is not to say that nothing happens outside those four hours. Pang believes that our best work is done, unconsciously, when we are at rest – while walking in the woods, gazing out of the window, listening to Bach and, above all, sleeping.

In Japan, no corporation has yet proposed a four-hour workday (or encouraged its employees to take long walks to boost performance), but a handful are reporting intriguing results that support Pang’s thesis. Last October, Nidec Corporation, a motor manufacturer, cited a significant reduction in overtime as an important factor in its record profit projections. Nidec banned working outside office hours without a manager’s permission and slashed overtime by 30 per cent without affecting productivity. This year, the corporation went further, announcing that it will invest more than $880m to eliminate overtime by 2020.

Meanwhile, the IT company SCSK has devised a novel solution to the problem of excess office hours: paying workers extra for not taking overtime. Since launching its “healthy management” strategy in 2012, SCSK has succeeded in reducing average daily overtime to roughly half an hour a day (down nearly threefold), while enjoying higher profits every year.

“When you focus on your workers’ health,” the firm’s former chairman, Nobuhide Nakaido, told the Japanese media, “it’s going to result in better work.”

Japan has enjoyed spectacular business success by embracing a philosophy of gritting one’s teeth and putting up with crushing workloads. Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that many of the country’s achievements may have come in spite of a culture of overwork, not because of it. If Pang’s ideas are right, Japan’s admirable cult of quality – even perfectionism – could find greater opportunities to flourish without the inspiration-destroying effects of excessive labour.

Rest condemns neither hard work nor perfectionism, but rather celebrates both. The book advises us to work hard but in short bursts, with opportunities for recuperation, in order to bring out the best that we can achieve.

“I don’t want to deny the importance of work in our lives,” Pang writes. “The challenge we face when learning to rest better is not to avoid work but to discover how to create a better fit between our work and our rest.” l

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge