The Way to a Better Work-life Balance? Unions, Not Self-help
By Peter Fleming
In a fascinating account of work-addiction by Melissa Gregg, we meet Miranda, a pricing manager in a telecommunications firm.
Miranda is seriously injured in a motorcycle accident. When her husband arrives at the hospital, she is barely conscious and only able to whisper a few words. Sadly it isn't the kids she calls for. The first thing Miranda wants is to phone the office because her presentation might not be happening tomorrow — but if they send a laptop to the emergency ward she will see what can be done to salvage the situation.
This anecdote is shocking, but not that surprising.
Overwork has become an epidemic in the western world; health officials put it in the same league as cigarette smoking regarding the damage it does to people's health. The social damage incurred by loved ones and friends can be just as bad. What can we do about it?
It is important to realise that the problem of having a mismatched work-life relationship is not new. When work and private life was separated during the industrial revolution, the first struggle fought by employees was to reduce the length of the official working day. Life trapped inside a factory for 17 hours a day, six days a week was no life at all. According to Karl Marx, the battle over exactly when one was checked in (or not) would come to define the capitalist system, and he wasn't wrong.
Certain trends are emerging which are starting to unofficially lengthen the working day once again. Now it's often impossible to distinguish between work and non-work. Take the case of spending Sunday night preparing for Monday morning. Is it work? Kind of, but I'm not being paid for it and there are no bosses around. So who knows?
With this ambiguity we see the rise of 24/7 capitalism, in which some people even find themselves working in their dreams. No, not simply dreaming about work but actually figuring out code and algorithms while asleep.
We often think that everyone works so much because we need the money. This may well be true, given how incomes have stagnated and living costs skyrocketed in much of the western world. But several other changes have also aided this creeping colonisation of life by our jobs.
First, it must be noted that not everybody is participating in the paid workforce, since there are still high levels of unemployment in many countries. What appears to have happened is that jobs are very unevenly distributed across society, meaning fewer people are doing more work. Those caught in the inevitable bottleneck are starting to feel the heat.
Second, mobile technology certainly plays a role since we are always connected — sometimes obsessively so, checking emails even when unnecessary. Studies have calculated the unpaid overtime as a result, discovering that some employees cancel out their entire annual leave given the extra work done online at home.
Third, the popular trend of reclassifying people as self-employed and contractors encourages overwork, because you only get paid for the direct hours you put in. Since that income is typically lower than regular jobs (which is the main objective of the reclassification) people find themselves working non-stop to make ends meet. Flexible employment systems were once sold to us as a path to more time off and greater autonomy. We would all become wealthy entrepreneurs like Richard Branson. What a cruel joke that turned out to be.
And fourth, our society is currently gripped by a pervasive ideology of work. It is continuously preached to us as the pinnacle of human virtue. If you're not doing superhuman stints at the office then something is wrong with you. And don't even mention the word unemployed … that's blasphemy.
The most worrying facet about the ideology of work is this: we are obliged to toil even when it's not really necessary in concrete, economic terms. Appearing super-busy becomes more about fulfilling a societal expectation than doing something useful to society. This can result in major dysfunctions.
People encouraged to look as if they are always doing something ironically become less productive. Recent research has convincingly demonstrated that rest and shorter work-days can allow us to work much faster and smarter compared with the excruciating and ultimately needless marathons that are currently the norm.
What's more, some employees invariably begin to fake these long hours given how difficult it is to pull off in reality. A study of management consultants in the US discovered that some workers devised ingenious ways to give the impression that they were following the 80-hour rule.
Sure, this corporate camouflage allowed the consultants to pick up their kids from football and eat a meal. But maybe it also helped get the work done successfully and on time. Here we see productivity (performing a task well) and the culture of work (staying in the office till late) strangely diverge.
Most employers realise that something is amiss, but the ideology of work seems stronger now than ever. Some people have even convinced themselves that they love being wedded to their job 24/7, what researchers label "enthusiastic workaholics". They're the most difficult self-harmers to reason with. They can't even think about a vacation without having a panic attack.
The trouble with much work-life balance advice is that it's been captured by the self-help movement. It all centres on the individual. If you want to rekindle your wellbeing and discover your inner potential, then take control of your choices, find a job that better fits your temperament, erect firm boundaries between work and leisure and learn to say no.
This gives an unrealistic picture of what is possible in most jobs, and would probably end with an untimely trip to the Jobcentre if taken seriously. In other words, work-life balance gurus assume that everyone is a middle-aged creative type, living in London with family money to fall back on, and firmly within their rights to tell the boss to bother off. Yeah, right.
The trick is to see the ritual of overwork as a societal pressure, not an individual fault. And much of this pressure stems from the disempowerment of the workforce that has occurred over the last 20 years. Insecurity — real or imagined — naturally makes it more likely that people will sacrifice everything for their job. That's why confronting work-mania as an individual is pointless. We need to come together as a group to voice these concerns if progressive policy and legislation are to be forged. Otherwise little will change.
Want a heathier work-life balance? Join a union. Or better still, create your own. But steer clear of that self-help section at the airport bookshop. It pretends the ideology of work might still be tamed by individual willpower. But it can't.