From evening email bans to a four-day week, why it’s time to rethink our addiction to work

The five-day week feels natural, immortal, set in stone, even though it only arrived with the Industrial Revolution. 

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Are we working too hard? The answer is an unequivocal yes. By European standards, Britons spend a lot of time working – 42 hours a week – but we’re not particularly productive when we’re there. And the answer to getting more done, counter-intuitively, could be working less.

At the end of last year, a Radio 4 producer called me to ask if I would present a series of One to One, talking to a single interviewee for 15 minutes. The topic should be something close to my heart. I chose overwork. There is a huge problem at both ends of the labour market: in prestigious jobs such as journalism, academia and banking, there’s an assumption that the busiest person in the office is also the most successful. Meanwhile, in the gig economy, there’s often little choice about working long hours if you want to make ends meet.

My interviewees were an eclectic bunch: the first was Robert Skidelsky, the Keynesian economist, still working at 79, overseeing a commission for the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, into the four-day week. He is also an advocate of a universal basic income. “We need to redefine work and leisure; we need to accept that meaningful activity is not the same as paid activity; we need to decouple both from pay,” he said in 2016. “In other words, we need a revolution in many of our social and economic arrangements and habits.”

Skidelsky is not the only one talking like this. On 1 February, the Autonomy think tank published a report called The Shorter Working Week: A Radical and Pragmatic Proposal. McDonnell called it a “vital contribution to the growing debate around free time and reducing the working week”.

Both of the adjectives in the Autonomy report’s title are important. The five-day week feels natural, immortal, set in stone, even though (like most of our ideas about working patterns) it only arrived with the Industrial Revolution. Once the rhythm of the seasons – harvest and winter, day and night – was removed, then artificial restrictions had to be imposed.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, trade unions fought for controls on labour – no more children up chimneys, no more junior doctors working 120 hours a week. That struggle continues today as underemployment becomes just as intractable a problem as unemployment; “jobs for life” are replaced by casual contracts; and automation and new technologies render traditional skills obsolete.

At both ends of the labour market, there is a fight over what constitutes work. Do late-night emails count? What about preparing a presentation at the weekend? “Email can unconsciously become a prison of our own making,” wrote Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, in July 2018, explaining his decision to stop replying after 7pm and at weekends. “The line between work and home is increasingly being lost, to the detriment of both.”

The same question applies in low-paid sectors. Currently, live-in carers are not entitled to the minimum wage during sleeping “on-call” hours and many instead receive a flat nightly fee of about £35-£45. The entire sector agrees that this is too low, but providers also argue that paying an hourly wage through the night would bankrupt an already precarious industry.

There has also been an explosion of what the Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich called “shadow work”, which can be seen as the dark side of automation. Where someone once pumped your petrol, or packed your shopping, or booked your holiday, now you do it yourself. At a population level, the amount of unpaid work we do is staggering: £18,932 per person a year, according to the Official of National Statistics. The figures included washing, cooking and childcare, but also less obvious things such as time spent driving others to work or school. All that added up to £1.24trn per year. (Inevitable feminist aside: yes, women do more of this unpaid work than men, although men often commute for longer.)

Then there is the increasing obsession with workplace metrics, which can itself become an enormous source of stress. Universities have the “Ref” system to monitor their research output; Deliveroo drivers have their progress tracked via their phone. These systems tend to treat humans like machines, forgetting that humans do inconvenient things such as having babies, caring for sick parents, or even simply needing to go to the loo. One of the most eye-opening articles I read last year was by Lauren Hough, who worked as a “cable guy”, fixing television connections in the suburbs of Washington, DC. A rare woman in the field, she quickly encountered a problem: there was nowhere to pee. “The guys could piss in apartment taprooms, any slightly wooded area, against a wall with their van doors open for cover, in Gatorade bottles they collected in their vans. I didn’t have those options,” she wrote in HuffPost. “If I had to pee, I had to drive to a 7-Eleven or McDonald’s or grocery store, not all of which have public bathrooms.” Maximised productivity, meet the existence of the human bladder.

Which brings me to the second adjective from that Autonomy report. Reducing the working week is pragmatic. Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand company, was studied by academics as it reduced its standard week to four days (while paying for five). Workers reported less stress and more motivation. Other studies have found that shorter working hours mean fewer sick days. The Wellcome Trust, home of Farrar and his no-night-emails rule, is considering moving its 800 head office staff to a four-day week on full pay.

The challenge then, I guess, will be to stop all those staff emailing each other on Fridays. Work is a difficult habit to kick.

“One to One” is on Radio 4 at 9.30am on 12 and 19 February, or on BBC Sounds

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 08 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Broken Europe