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

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

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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

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