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The "overwork" epidemic, a dangerous illusion

2024-03-13 17:37:24, Blog CNA

The "overwork" epidemic, a dangerous illusion

Worry about layoffs, not burnout*.

Worrying about being overworked is having practical consequences. Starting with the European Union's 48-hour work directive in 2003, most countries have implemented a maximum working time of 48 hours per week, and half have implemented a maximum of 40 hours.

France, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Ireland have all introduced "right to disconnect" laws, specifying hours when staff must not deal with emails. The global movement to move to a four-day work week is gaining momentum. Many young Chinese are so concerned about their country's 996 work culture (9 to 9 p.m., 6 days a week) that they have started a "lay down" or "tang ping" movement in Chinese.

"We employees are very tired. We need to lie down."

But is it true that employees work long hours? And is dedication to work really a bad thing? The answers to both of these questions are much more interesting than the 'apostles' of overwork suggest.

The best economic data shows that, on average, people are working fewer hours than ever. Working hours have fallen most in countries with higher GDP because fewer hours are needed to earn a satisfactory living. Housework is also much more efficient thanks to technology, which now includes vacuum cleaners and lawnmowers that work by themselves and even. Most people have about 40 hours of free time per week.

The difference lies in the distribution of work and not in the amount of working hours. A Harvard Business Review study of "extreme jobs" in 2006 found that 62% of high earners work more than 50 hours a week, 35% work more than 60 hours, and 10% work more than 80. hours, and there is little reason to think that life has gotten any easier since then. Young investment bankers often work 80-120 hours a week (a common joke is that a banker's 9 to 5 is from 9 in the morning to 5 in the morning).

The increase in free time has occurred for regular workers. Daniel Markovits of Yale University has calculated that in 1940, the typical worker in the bottom 60% of incomes worked nearly four hours more per week than the typical worker in the top 1%.

By 2010, they worked 12 hours less. Additionally, a growing number of people at the bottom of society, including more than 7 million American men, have dropped out of the workforce, many of them spending their time watching TV, playing video games, and just hanging out. .

Extreme working hours are not necessarily a problem either. Elon Musk is right when he argues that, "you can't change the world with 40 hours a week." Extreme success usually requires extreme effort.

Musk himself worked 120-hour weeks when he was building Tesla and often slept in the office. Honoré de Balzac regularly wrote from midnight to 8 a.m., surrounded by countless cups of coffee, and once claimed to have worked for 48 hours straight.

As prime minister, Margaret Thatcher got up at 5 a.m. every morning, took a short break to cook breakfast for her husband and children, and then worked for the rest of the day. The 1980s would have been different without her relentless drive and fearsome mastery of detail.

For some, all this work can be a terrible burden. However, for many others it is a pleasure: the more work becomes a profession rather than a daily obligation, the more people will tend to work long hours, not because they have to, but because they want to. Most academics choose their profession because they enjoy what they do.

The same can be true for many other professionals, journalists, artists and creatives. The countless hours they work often pass because they get into the "flow" of intense concentration (another reason why all those emails and instant messages are a problem).

Entrepreneurs also have no choice but to work harder than regular wage earners and women. It's fashionable to criticize Amazon.com Inc. for extreme work culture. It's also fashionable in some quarters to decry America's hard-working culture in comparison to, say, Europe's more relaxed attitude.

Only one EU company worth more than $100 billion, Germany's SAP AG, has been founded in the past half-century compared to 27 in the US, including most future-setting companies.

This does not mean that there are no problems with work habits. Some people find it impossible to relax. There are a handful of cases, especially interns and new recruits, who work themselves to exhaustion. In general, however, the problem is much more subtle than overwork theorists suggest.

The problem of "overwork", of course, depends on the context. There is nothing wrong with young people working as many hours as they can, unless they are burdened with family responsibilities and determined to make a name for themselves. But a similar commitment to work can be a problem if it means neglecting the children.

There is nothing wrong with a start-up waiting for its new employees to sleep under their desks to meet a deadline. But mature companies need a more relaxed approach if they want to thrive in the long run.

What looks like "excess work" often turns out to be poor work management. Some employers make the mistake of confusing "engagement" with productivity. The average worker spends an hour and a half to three hours a day pretending to be working, when in fact they are not.

Some employers also require their employees to be active on an ever-increasing number of social media platforms. Parkinson's Law, coined in 1955 by C. Northcote Parkinson, states that "work expands to fill the time available for its completion." Today the work expands to fill the channels available for its distribution.

For their part, employees make the mistake of letting work invade their private lives instead of setting clear boundaries. They often engage in half-work – checking their phones during dinner with their families, or catching up on e-mail while watching TV. This problem is exacerbated by both mobile phone technology and working from home.

Mobile technology creates what has been called the "paradox of autonomy": The more we decide where we work, the more we end up working everywhere. "We're not working from home," says Andrew Barnes, co-founder of 4 Day Week Global, "but we're sleeping in the office." This blurring of the line between work and rest means that we all often experience the worst of both worlds – we can neither fully concentrate nor get the rest we need.

There are many ways to deal with these problems, from doing a better job, disconnecting when you get home, to having a frank conversation with your boss about the downsides of midnight e-mails.

But let's not let the current hysteria about "worrying about being overworked" distract us, as a society, from the larger problem of the number of people leaving the workforce.

And let's not use that, especially in Europe, as another excuse to create yet more legislation in terms of the hours we can work. The last thing growth-starved economies need is another excuse to take a nap. / Monitor.al - Bloomberg

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