The idea that technology can free us from the toil of work is powerful. It has also been a powerful disappointment, at least so far. Many regret the fact that John Maynard Keynes thought we could all work a 15-hour week at this point. But it’s not just about working hours. The nature of the work also seems to have changed over the last three decades. Despite – or perhaps because of – new technology, people now say they are working harder to tighten deadlines during higher levels of tension.
The best evidence of this comes from the United Kingdom, where large government-funded surveys conducted every five years show increasing “labor intensification” since the 1990s. The proportion of employees who “agree” on their job requires that they work “very hard” increased from 30 percent in 1992 to 46 percent in 2017. The proportion who claim to work with “tight deadlines” for at least three quarters of the time has increased from 53 percent to 60 percent. And the proportion who say they work at “very high speed” for at least three quarters of the time has swelled from 23 percent to 45 percent.
What is striking about this trend is that it happens to everyone.
“It’s not just Amazon’s production line person who has had his work intensified, it’s the London commuter and the new lawyer,” said Francis Green, a professor at UCL who has studied the phenomenon for several years. According to an analysis by the think tank Resolution Foundation, just over two-thirds of employees in the top quarter of the pay scale said they worked “under a lot of tension” in 2017. The same was true for half of them in the bottom quarter for pay, but this latter group has experienced the largest the increase in tensions since the 1990s.
Studies have shown that work is intensified among managers, nurses, aviation workers, meat processing workers, school teachers, IT staff and carers. There is also evidence of intensification of work in Europe and the United States.
What is going on? In the 1990s, people said that their “own discretion” was the most important factor in how hard they worked. Now they are more likely to quote “clients or customers.” In a world of instant communication, many employees now feel the need to respond quickly to consumer or customer demands. This applies to the banker who works with a large merger and the Uber Eats driver he calls to give him a hamburger. In the newspaper industry, we publish important breaking news online as soon as we can. I sometimes think sadly of our predecessors before the internet who just had to worry about the deadline for printing.
Another possible explanation is that employers have simply cut back on workers to save costs without coming up with more efficient ways of doing things. This will undoubtedly resonate with public sector employees in the UK who experienced a decade of cuts in public spending after the financial crisis.
Some companies have also used technology to get more effort out of staff. More workplaces as warehouses have been partially automated, which means that workers have to keep up with machines. Other workers are now easier to monitor. Witness the growth of software that tracks employees’ keystrokes, measures their breaks, and sends pushes if they move on to non-job-related websites.
A fourth possibility is that email and instant messaging platforms like Slack simply tire people out mentally. It is difficult to focus when they are constantly interrupted, which can make workers feel that they are working hard and fast even if they do not get much done.
This raises the key question of productivity. It is not necessarily a bad thing for people to work harder if they had some spare capacity in the past. After all, higher productivity should lead to a better standard of living. But labor intensification in the UK has coincided with poor productivity growth over the past decade. And even if it does not seem to make us richer to work harder, it does seem to make us sicker.
A new study by academics Tom Hunt and Harry Pickard suggests that “working at high intensity” increases the likelihood of people reporting stress, depression and burnout. They are also more likely to work when they are ill. Data from the UK Health and Safety Executive show that the proportion of people suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety increased even before the pandemic struck.
What can be done? It would be tricky to pull back the various factors that together have intensified the work. In the absence of simple political solutions, it is easy to see why the campaign for a four-day week has gained momentum, with a trial starting in British workplaces this week.
If we can not work less hard, maybe we should just work less.
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022
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