Tom Hodgkinson: Too idle? Not idle enough!

Our problem is not laziness but tiredness, which is very different
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The Independent Online

It's always wise when considering the worth of a new survey to look at the agenda of the people who release it. Yesterday's attack on "idle Britain", in a report that claims we are too lazy to run for the bus or have sex, was released by Nuffield Health. Now this is an organisation which – surprise, surprise – owns private hospitals, and recently acquired a chain of 52 health clubs. It also provides what it calls "on-site fitness facilities" to businesses, as well as offering "corporate rates at our consumer centres".

The survey was clearly a brilliant marketing exercise that gave Nuffield Health large amounts of free publicity across national newspapers and telly and radio. I can picture the directors of the board slapping each other on their backs for creating a branding strategy of genius. It was a clever move, particularly following a report by Which magazine last month which criticised the health checks offered by places like Bupa and Nuffield: "They can cost hundreds of pounds for what sometimes amounts to little more than lifestyle and dietary advice," said Which's editor.

While the health nuts at Nuffield condemn the lazy of body, the idle amongst us might condemn Nuffield Health's spokesman's laziness of mind. Her grammar is appalling: "The nation has fallen into a vicious circle of laziness that we must put a stop to." Oh dear. Did she do O-level English? Try to imagine a nation falling into a circle, a circle, indeed, which has been fabricated from laziness. And then imagine trying to put a stop to that circle.

Now, we can see Nuffield's attack on the idle as part of a 250-year-old campaign to instill in bloody-minded Brits the values of industry, sobriety and frugality. A management guru of the 19th-century, Andrew Ure, wrote in 1835 of the "need to subdue the refractory habits of work-people accustomed to irregular paroxysms of diligence".

As the historian EP Thompson points out, this attitude happened to be extremely convenient to the mill-owning classes. Hard work meant greater profits. And so it is today: good health in employees is desirable insofar as it contributes to the bottom line. One section of Nuffield's website advertises its corporate services with the tempting claim: "People in 'good health' are 20 per cent more productive than those in 'poor health'."

And upon further inspection of the report, it appears that it is not actually laziness which prevents us Brits from running for the bus or having more sex, it is tiredness, which is a very different thing. Tiredness is caused by overwork, and therefore the answer is not to tire ourselves out still further with costly visits to Nuffield Health clubs, but on the contrary to work less hard.

This indeed was the view of Bertrand Russell, who I think most of us would consider to be the opposite of lazy-minded. He wrote in 1935: "A great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work." Philosophers agree: what we need for health and happiness is not less idleness, but a lot more.

The writer is editor of 'The Idler'