Every day is a duvet day at my place of work

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The Independent Online

You may have noticed something different about this week - a change in the atmosphere, the tenor of everyday life. People in shops have smiled at customers. The voices of those working in call centres have seemed to belong to humans rather than to cybernetically-generated androids. There have even been rumours of commuters talking to one another on the London underground. Like their own, small versions of the TV castaways, people have returned to the mainland of work from their little islands of leisure, gentler, more in touch with themselves, imbued with an old-fashioned sense of community.

You may have noticed something different about this week - a change in the atmosphere, the tenor of everyday life. People in shops have smiled at customers. The voices of those working in call centres have seemed to belong to humans rather than to cybernetically-generated androids. There have even been rumours of commuters talking to one another on the London underground. Like their own, small versions of the TV castaways, people have returned to the mainland of work from their little islands of leisure, gentler, more in touch with themselves, imbued with an old-fashioned sense of community.

Or maybe you noticed nothing. You were among the three million people who, honestly or dishonestly (terrible, this flu that's going round), have tricked out their stay in the real, non-working world until next week. You have stayed in bed, had long, meandering conversations, played silly games, made love at unlikely times, watched some trash TV ( Celebrity Weakest Link, Millionaire, even the feeble adaptation of Sword of Honour). You have lived.

The problem with moments like these is that they can induce the desire for more of the same. A taste of normal life can be habit-forming, maybe even addictive. In fact, so many people have developed a craving for life beyond work that those who profit from career-dependence are becoming alarmed. "The worrying thing is that many people are throwing sickies," scolded The Institute of Directors' Ruth Lea this week. "Throwing sickies because you think you are entitled to more time off is unethical. It is tantamount to theft."

This kind of bullying talk is common among bosses (those millions of hours of unpaid overtime do not, of course, count as theft) but, at a time of high employment, it is unlikely to impress. A more cunning approach is that being used by VJS Foods, a cooked-meat manufacturer from King's Lynn, which is giving staff who work a full sickie-free month the chance to take part in a draw, with two prizes of £1000 on offer. "I admit we have resorted to a form of bribery and corruption, but it works," their personnel officer said.

Exploiting the lottery culture may work in King's Lynn but, in a wider context, the encouragement of work-obsession by bribes or threats can only do harm. A recent government report revealed the shocking statistic that over half of Britain's workforce work longer than the legally permitted 48 hours per week. One in five men put in more than 60 hours a week, while a quarter of working mothers were so career-obsessed that they took less than their statutory 18 weeks' leave.

With understandable self-interest, firms have been offering stress counselling - after all, a workforce being sent bonkers by pressure is unlikely to be productive - but they are clearly addressing the symptom, not the cause. It is time to downgrade the significance of work in a modern, healthy life, to bear in mind that the fever for self-advancement belongs back in the 1980s. It may not be not easy - one of the reasons people stay at work is that shouting down a telephone or sitting in front of a computer takes less effort than actually living - but the rewards are great.

The so-called "duvet days", extra holidays to be taken on days when you simply can't be bothered to go into work, are a useful first step. They should become obligatory under employment law, while employers who, like the meat manufacturer of Kings Lynn, encourage overwork, should be subject to the discipline of the courts.

As is so often the case, writers lead the world in this area. For many of us, every day is duvet day, with hours being spent in a state of quiet, semi-conscious contemplation. It is time for the rest of the working population to start following our example.

terblacker@aol.com

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