This week, the World Health Organisation published analysis from across the globe revealing that long working hours lead to deaths from heart attacks and strokes – 745,000 in 2016, to be precise. In the middle of a pandemic, when we are reeling from the millions of deaths as a result of a ruthless virus, and when we have begun to recognise the precious gift of health, it seems absurd that the hours we are forced to work are making us unnecessarily sick.
Perhaps this analysis isn’t as surprising as some have suggested – most of us have direct experience of the toll which work takes on our mental as well as physical health. But the pandemic has given us a renewed focus on how fragile both our health and our health systems are – especially after decades of underfunding by the government here in Britain.
It seems preposterous to have to explain why damage to our health is a bad thing, but even if we put the human toll aside, it comes at a cost. Squandering the scant healthcare resources we have on treating completely avoidable illnesses wastes money that could be spent on other kinds of preventative care, which can save lives. It also puts an unbearable strain on the workers within the health service, two thirds of whom are overworked themselves in Britain. Businesses also sustain losses when their employees need to take days off sick.
We should be cautious of using these kinds of arguments to push back against overwork, though. Capitalist logic forces us to see leisure as something to feel guilty about – even our hobbies are expected to be productive, professionalised, and marketable. Often when we try to rest and do other ‘non-productive’ activities, we’re bothered by a sense that we should be doing something more worthwhile – whether that’s working, ‘life admin’, or activities that supposedly make us more resilient workers, such as mindfulness. Labour is imbued with a sense of moral superiority. We’re all internalising this, and it’s making us sick.
We see the perfidious effects of this demonisation of leisure across society, with the most marginalised suffering some of the worst consequences. Edanur Yazici’s upcoming study of life in the asylum system shows how leisure time for those seeking asylum—and thus unable to work—is judged through this moral framework of productivity. Migrants who are not legally able to work are encouraged to volunteer in order to not ‘waste’ the chasm of spare time spent awaiting decisions about their immigration status. This, as Yazici argues, denies the self-actualising, self-expressive, and restorative effects of non-productive time – while demonising migrants and asylum-seekers as ‘lazy scroungers’.
We see the same counterintuitive narrative which compels us to feel guilty about ‘non-productive’ leisure in the story surrounding the unfolding effects of automation. These technological developments should free us from mind-numbing, repetitive tasks, and reduce working time for people across the entire workforce. Instead, since the ownership of the digital economy is concentrated into the hands of the very few, we see a handful of tech bros get obscenely rich, while an increasingly casualised workforce must accept precarity and the threat of unemployment as the ‘inevitable’ impacts of automation.
The Communication Workers Union (CWU) recently won a campaign to secure a four-day week for postal workers who have had significant parts of their role replaced by machines. This should be a model for the future: automation should come with a gift of free time – but we need to make the case for this more forcefully across the economy.
The ability to meet the demands of excessively long hours, which increase as union power weakens, is not equal. Women, who disproportionately bear the responsibility of care and child-rearing, must balance this work with paid employment, limiting their earnings which in turn can make them more vulnerable to gender-based violence and constrain their ability to participate in public life.
Those with physical disabilities and mental health problems that limit their ability to work the same hours as their able-bodied, neurotypical counterparts also face reduced power earnings, compounding the social and economic inequalities they already face. And mental health problems in turn aren’t equally distributed. Black people are more likely to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act. Racialised groups in general have higher rates of depression and face multiple barriers in access to mental health services. A Stonewall report found that half of LGBT people are reported to have experienced depression. That’s not to mention the compound impact of discrimination based on both ethnicity and sexuality. Inequalities in the ability to meet the ever-increasing demands of working time simply entrench existing social and economic injustice.
It’s worth also considering wider factors in our ability to lead healthy, happy lives. Much has been written of the devastating health impacts of environmental degradation. As the Four Day Week campaign argues, excessive working hours preclude us from making individual choices that could have a positive impact on both the environment and our health, such as walking rather than driving, reducing carbon emissions, and cutting consumption of disposable, unsustainable goods, like a packaged sandwich to go.
The cruel double-bind of our contemporary working culture limits the time we have to give to democratic participation – and therefore our ability to resist the pressures of overwork. But reclaiming our time is our only hope for fighting a life cut short by preventable deaths, and lived beset by depression and anxiety. As our work at the New Economics Foundation has shown, working conditions—including how much time we spend at work—have worsened as union density has declined. Organising won us back our free time before – and it can again.