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With more than half of American adults fully vaccinated against Covid, employers and workers alike have turned their gaze back to the office. They are conflicted about when they will return and what the return will be if they do. But we shouldn’t just talk about the parameters of how we do our work in a post-pandemic world. We should push for less of it.
The truth is that the return to office debate is tense. Employers are used to being able to determine when and where employees work, but we’ve now discovered that a lot of work can be done at unusual times between distance learning and home office, or even from the comfort of your bed.
So now there is a tense push-and-over about when and how much people should start commuting and how much power can be wielded over the issue that employees can wield. Everyone is focused on how we’re going to get the job going after such a severe shock to the system as things were done before. However, the ultimate answer will not be found in hybrid remote and personal offices or even allowing employees to postpone their working hours. The way to get the work going is to reduce it.
When the pandemic broke out, almost everyone was in full swing and we are showing no signs of subsiding. Until April 2020, during the first major Covid spike, Americans worked three more hours a day at their workplaces. When our commutes disappeared, much of the extra time was invested not in our own lives, but in our Zoom meetings and Slack messaging. Working on a full-time job consumed most of the time saved (35.3 percent of that, to be precise); a further 8.4 percent had a second job. The line between work and home is blurring and we let work take over. No wonder a third of Americans now say they are burned out from work at home.
But while we are beginning to find our way back to some sort of normalcy, it is not enough for employees to ask that our working hours go back to what they were. Before the pandemic, nearly a third of Americans were spending 45 hours or more each week, with about 8 million spending 60 or more. While Europeans have reduced their working hours by around 30 percent over the last half century, ours has increased steadily. We have long needed a better work-life balance, but while we are constantly trying to hack our lives by waking up before sunrise or exercising during midday, the only way to achieve this can be by actually working less.
This may sound heretical to Americans, who spend 7 to 19 percent more time on the job than our European counterparts. But we should pay attention to the other countries that have come to this realization. This year, the Spanish government announced a pilot program to encourage companies to try a four-day week without cutting other people’s wages. Last month, Japan released economic policy guidelines urging employers to do the same. Iceland has just published results of a four-day week experiment in Reykjavik that ran from 2015 to 2019 and found that productivity did not decrease and in some cases even improved. The reduced schedule showed that “we are not just machines that just work,” said one Icelandic participant. “We are people with desires and a private life, families and hobbies.” The employees stated that they were less burned out and healthier.
Working too long is bad for our health, which is linked not only to weight gain and more alcohol and tobacco consumption, but also to higher rates of injury, illness and death. A study looking at long hours in 194 countries found a higher risk of heart disease and stroke, resulting in approximately 745,000 attributable deaths. Long working hours are “the greatest occupational risk factor calculated to date,” the authors write.
However, there is a class difference in revision in the United States. The requirement to spend 60 hours in an office exhausts the lives of professional, better paid workers. What appears to be an opposite problem plagues those at the lower end of the pay scale. In 2016, about a tenth of American workers worked part-time but tried to get more hours. Despite the current wringing of hands that these workers will not return to work thanks to lucrative unemployment benefits, the problem is typically the opposite: people who work in retail or fast food often struggle to get enough hours to qualify for benefits and pay have their bills just to survive.
They also struggle to cobble them together into a predictable schedule. Sixteen percent of American workers’ hours vary based on the needs of their employers. The folks who suffer from just-in-time planning that never quite adds up to a normal 9 to 5 don’t spend their free hours on free time. You have second and third jobs. They hover over an app to find out if they are called to work and try to put childcare and transportation together when and when they are. Employers are still taking 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 immerse themselves in their private or family life.” Employers steal overtime, that they spend in front of the computer as well as free time that they spend putting together a decent income.
However, if everyone worked less, it would be easier to distribute the work evenly among more people. If employees were no longer expected or required to do 60 hours per week, but rather 30 hours, that would be a whole lot more work for someone else. That would allow more people in middle-class income positions, especially young people who would like to take advantage of higher education. We could even guarantee everyone a floor, a certain number of hours, while simultaneously lowering the ceiling. That would push low-wage employers to take full advantage of the people who have them, rather than treating them as replaceable cogs to be called in or turned away when demand demands.
The goal, said Dr. Lambert, is “a reasonable job per person”. Not “two for one and half for another”.
A reduction in work does not have to mean a reduction in living standards. In 1930, in the midst of the Great Depression, John Maynard Keynes predicted that by 2030 we would only have to work 15 hours a week. Technological progress and increasing productivity and prosperity would mean that we have everything we need by doing less. But while Keynes underestimated the leap in technology and wealth that we would see in the years in between, we are working harder than ever instead of working less.
That doesn’t mean that we are producing more. There’s a point where we just can’t squeeze any useful work out of ourselves, no matter how many hours we put in. Studies show that worker performance drops sharply after around 48 hours a week, and those who put in more than 55 hours do a week worse than those who put in a typical 9 to 5. Even during the pandemic, when working hours skyrocketed, performance remained unchanged, which means that productivity actually fell.
None of this is new. Henry Ford famously reduced the shifts in his auto plants to eight hours a day in 1914 without cutting workers’ wages, and was rewarded with a production boom. Years later, after mass strikes and mobilizations, and during the same depression that inspired Keynes, the 40-hour work week was enshrined in the Fair Labor Standards Act. But working eight hours a day, five days a week is neither scientific nor preprogrammed. It’s just the norm we’ve accepted – and increasingly blown by.
Keynes seized the opportunity of an economic depression of the generations when millions became unemployed to look ahead and imagine what the future could and should be. Workers used the Depression as an opportunity to enforce laws that punish employers for making people work more than 40 hours a week. The pandemic is our chance to do something similar. Employees have a lot of power over employers who are trying to get production back on track and negotiate what the new day-to-day office life will look like.
This is an opportunity for us to not only have more control over where we work, but also how much we work. Americans cannot be satisfied with working 6 to 2 instead of 9 to 5. We have to demand a break that lasts longer than Saturday and Sunday. We need to regain our free time to spend as we please.