Johann Hari: We don't need this culture of overwork

Britain now has the longest work hours in the developed world after the US

Share
Related Topics

This year, we all need to become more like Utah, under its Republican governor – and then go further. No, dear reader, don't panic – I have not converted to Mormonism, nor have I tossed out my sanity with my old Santa hat and Christmas decorations. The people of one of the most conservative states in the US have stumbled across a simple policy that slashes greenhouse gas emissions by 13 percent, saves huge sums of money, improves public services, cuts traffic congestion, and makes 82 per cent of workers happier. It can do the same for us – and point to an even better future beyond it – without the need for the Arch-Angel Moron (yes, Mormons really do believe in him) to offer his blessing.

It all began two years ago, when the state was facing a budget crisis. One night, the new Republican Governor Jon Huntsman was staring at the red ink and rough sums when he had an idea. Keeping the state's buildings lit and heated and manned cost a fortune. Could it be cut without cutting the service given to the public? Then it hit him. What if, instead of working 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, the state's employees only came in four days a week, but now from 8 to 6? The state would be getting the same forty hours a week out of its staff – but the costs of maintaining their offices would plummet. The employees would get a three-day weekend, and cut a whole day's worth of tiring, polluting commuting out of their week.

He took the step of requiring it by law for 80 per cent of the state's employees. (Obviously, some places - like the emergency services or prisons – had to be exempted.) At first, there was cautious support among the workforce but as the experiment has rolled on, it has gathered remarkable acclaim. Today, two years on, 82 per cent of employees applaud the new hours, and hardly anyone wants to go back. Professor Lori Wadsworth carried out a detailed study of workers' responses, and she says: "People love it."

A whole series of unexpected benefits started to emerge. The number of sick days claimed by workers fell by 9 per cent. Air pollution fell, since people were spending 20 per cent less time in their cars. Some 17,000 tonnes of warming gases were kept out of the atmosphere. They have a new slogan in Utah – Thank God It's Thursday.

But wouldn't people be irritated that they couldn't contact their state authorities on a Friday? Did the standard of service fall? It was a real worry when the programme started. But before, people had to take time off work to contact the authorities, since they were only open during work hours. Now they were open for an hour before work and an hour after it. It actually became easier to see them Monday to Thursday: waiting times for state services have fallen.

Think of it as the anti-Dolly Parton manifesto, puncturing her famous song: "Workin' 9 to 5/ What a way to make a livin'/ Barely gettin' by/ Its enough to drive you/ Crazy if you let it..." A queue of US cities and corporations like General Motors are following suit, and Britain's councils and companies should be sweeping in behind them. It's a win-win-win – good for employees, good for employers and good for the environment.

And once we started on this course, it could spur us to think in more radical ways about work. If this tiny little tinker with work routines leads to a big burst of human happiness and environmental sanity, what could bigger changes achieve?

Work is the activity that we spend most of our waking lives engaged in - yet it is too often trapped in an outdated routine. Today, very few of us work in factories, yet we have clung to the habits of the factory with almost religious devotion. Clock in, sit at your terminal, be seen to work, clock out. Is this the best way to make us as productive and creative and happy as we can be? Should we clamber into a steel box every morning to sit in a concrete box all day?

Some of the best artworks of recent years – Joshua Ferris' novel And Then We Came To The End, Ricky Gervais' TV series The Office, Mike Judge's film Office Space – have distilled the strange anomie of living like this, constantly monitored, constantly sedentary, constantly staring at a screen. When I started working from home, I suddenly found my productivity shot up: when I stopped being seen to work just by sitting at a desk, I actually knuckled down faster and with fewer distractions to work properly. In a wired lap-topped world, far more people could work more effectively from home, in hours of their own choosing, if only their bosses would have confidence in them. They would be better workers, better parents and better people – and we would take a huge number of cars off the road.

But the problem runs deeper than this. Britain now has the longest work hours in the developed world after the US – and in a recession, those of us with jobs scamper ever faster in our hamster-wheels. Yes, we now make the Japanese look chilled. This is not how 2010 was meant to turn out. If you look at the economists and thinkers of, say, the 1930s, they assumed that once we had achieved abundance – once humans had all the food and clothes and heat and toys we could use – we would relax and work less. They thought that by now work would barely cover three days as we headed en masse for the beach and the concert-hall.

Instead, the treadmill is whirling ever-faster. This isn't our choice: virtually every study of this issue finds that huge majorities of people say they want to work less and spend more time with their friends, their families and their thoughts. We know it's bad for us. Professor Cary Cooper, who has studied to effects of overwork on the human body, says: "If you work consistently long hours, more than 45 a week, every week, it will damage your health, physically and psychologically." You become 37 per cent more likely to suffer a stroke or heart-attack if you work 60 hours a week – yet one in six of all Brits are doing just that.

We don't stop primarily because we are locked in an arms race with out colleagues. If we relax and become more human, we fall behind the person in the next booth down, who is chasing faster. Work can be one of the richest and most rewarding experiences, but not like this. In a recession, this insecurity only swells. Under Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the 1990s, the French discovered the most elegant way out of this, taking the Utah experiment deeper and further. They insisted that everyone work a maximum of 35 paid hours a week. It was a way of saying: in a rich country, life is about more than serving corporations and slogging. Wealth generation and consumerism should be our slaves, not our masters: where they make us happy, we should embrace them; where they make us miserable, we should cast them aside. Enjoy yourself. True wealth lies not only in having enough, but in having the time to enjoy everything and everyone around you.

It was the equivalent to an arms treaty: we all stop, together, now, at the 35 hour mark. The French population became fitter, their relationships were less likely to break down, their children became considerably happier, and voluntary organisations came back to life. According to the national statistics agency Insee, the policy created 350,000 jobs, because so many people moved to job-shares to ensure their post was filled five days a week. But under pressure from corporations enraged that their staff couldn't be made to slog all the time, Nicholas Sarkozy has abolished this extraordinary national experiment. The French people were dismayed: the polls show a majority still support the cap.

From the unlikely pairing of Salt Lake City and Paris, a voice is calling. It is telling us that if we leave our offices empty a little more, we can find a happier, healthier alternative lying in the great free spaces beyond.

j.hari@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker