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Why do we work too much?



Why do we work too much?

In 2013, a Japanese news reporter named Miwa Sado died suddenly shortly after covering two consecutive elections. An investigation by government officials classified the tragedy as a case of Karoshi or death by overwork. Sado had done one hundred and fifty-nine hours of overtime the previous month. When her body was found, she was still holding her cell phone. As the anthropologist James Suzman points out in his most recent book, Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, the story of Sado and the Karoshi phenomenon illuminate the dangers of a post-industrial economy where both the labor available and our ambitions are practical become infinite. “Death from overwork has been an issue ever since some of our ancestors replaced their arches and digging sticks with plows and hoes,” writes Suzman. But, as he points out, “what drove people like Miwa Sado to lose or take their lives was not the risk of hardship or poverty, but their own ambitions, broken by the expectations of their employers.”

Fortunately, these extreme examples of overwork remain relatively rare. In 2013, Sado was one of only one hundred and thirty-three deaths in Japan officially attributed to Karoshi. Even one such case is too much, of course, but of the class of workers who have some autonomy in their workload, few seem to allow it to get completely out of hand. A leisurely way of working seems to be just as rare. A few years ago a former editor sent me a manuscript of a book he thought I might like, written by a corporate web designer named Paul Jarvis who has become a freelance consultant. The book was titled “Company of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business,” and Jarvis argued that instead of trying to grow your business to get more sales, you should purposely keep it small to avoid stress to reduce and increase free time. This idea represented such a striking countercultural contrast to the Hustle and Grow books that dominated the business advisory genre that I read it eagerly and offered a blurb for the book cover.

Unlike Sado and Jarvis, most workers fortunate enough to have some control over their endeavors, such as knowledge workers and small business owners, tend not to work too much, but they also tend to not work adequately. Instead, they exist in a border zone: a place where, say, to set a certain number, they work twenty percent more than they really have time. That extra twenty percent is just enough overwork to create persistent stress – there’s always something late, always a message that can’t wait until the next morning, always a nagging sense of irresponsibility at every moment of downtime. Yet the work remains below a level of unsustainable pain that would force change.

I’ve been thinking about that extra twenty percent as part of my broader effort to understand the work renegotiations that are ongoing as we near post-pandemic normalcy. The ubiquitous overhaul is a serious obstacle to many ideas of how we might reshape our professional lives in the months ahead. When we have more work than we can easily handle, the frictions of working remotely increase and the chances are that at some point we will simply give up and return to the office all day. Likewise, the introduction of new popular schemes like a four-day week will not provide the flexibility and mental relief intended if we pack in too many tasks for the number of hours we cover. If we want our jobs to be more productive and humane, we have to bypass the extra twenty percent that we have to face.

Many of the more recent approaches to this overload problem take a classic Marxist conflict theory perspective: If you work too much, it’s because the capitalists are exploiting your labor – either directly, through unreasonable demands, or indirectly, by sustaining a culture that values ​​diligence . Conflict theory identifies “revolution from below” as the solution to these humiliations: repelling abusive bosses through organizing and labor legislation; destabilize their coercive culture through art and polemics. This dynamic is certainly relevant to many parts of our economic activity (think, for example, of the ongoing struggle to unionize Amazon warehouse workers), but when it comes to semi-autonomous knowledge workers and entrepreneurs, the subject gets even grimmer. Many of these overworked employees do not have a manager who will directly measure their performance and urge them to do more – and these workers do not tend to adopt a culture that enhances busyness, but rather tend to view their hectic pace as a weight that dying to get rid of them; in fact, they are often frustrated because they are unable to do so. Losing the comforting clarity of conflict theory is a problem: if we cannot point out bad actors who are causing our misery, where do we direct our urgent conviction to do something about it?

We could make further progress in understanding chronic busyness if we turn to a satirical essay published in The Economist in 1955 by a British naval historian by the almost comical patrician name Cyril Northcote Parkinson. This essay, which has become an underground classic among those studying work and productivity, is titled “Parkinson’s Law” and begins with a famous statement: “It is a common observation that work expands to include To fill in time available for their work to complete. “Parkinson supports this claim by discussing the growth of the British Admiralty between 1914 and 1928. During this postwar period, the number of capital ships and the sailors who manned them declined significantly What Parkinson saw was how the naval administrative bureaucracy grew significantly during this period. Parkinson argues that in the absence of strict guidelines about what work to do, this administrative apparatus became an independent, self-regulating system that for the sake of growth became began to grow regardless of the actual organizational needs that it served.

To reinforce his position on the rampant bureaucratic growth, Parkinson provides a series of equations that an ecologist could use to model the replication of a bacterial colony. The mathematical details of Parkinson’s Law are not important as its accuracy should be satirical. But embedded in this satire is an important truth: work systems can develop independently of rational plans if they are left sufficiently autonomous. Once we accept this idea, our busyness problem becomes easier to understand. The defining characteristic of today’s professional environment, in which everyone works twenty percent too much, is the autonomy that is given to the individual to decide which work to accept and which work to postpone or reject.

If you’re a professor, middle manager, or freelance consultant, you don’t have a manager to give you a detailed assignment for the day. Instead, you will likely be bombarded with inquiries and questions and opportunities and invitations where you do your best. How do you decide when to say no? In the modern office context, stress has become a standard heuristic. If you decline a Zoom meeting invitation, you will incur social capital costs as you are doing slight harm to a coworker and potentially signaling that you are uncooperative or a slacker. However, when you are feeling sufficiently stressed about your workload, that cost can become acceptable: you feel confident that you are “busy,” and this provides psychological cover to skip the zoom. The problem with the stress heuristic is that it doesn’t reduce your workload until you are already too busy. Like the Parkinson’s naval bureaucracy that expanded regularly regardless of the size of the navy, this stress-based self-regulatory scheme ensures you stay moderately overloaded no matter how much work is actually urging.

The Parkinson’s-inspired Explanation for Overwork suggests an obvious general remedy: reducing the level of sheer self-regulation of workloads. In a 2018 article for the MIT Sloan Management Review titled “Breaking Logjams in Knowledge Work,” economists Sheila Dodge, Don Kieffer, and Nelson P. Repenning argue that office work should follow the example of advanced industrial manufacturing and movement Distribution of tasks from a push to a pull model. Most attitudes to knowledge work employ a push paradigm: when you need to do something, give it to someone else – with an email or a request during a meeting. As the authors note, this leaves individuals overworked to make complicated prioritization decisions on their own, which in turn encourages disorganization. “When knowledge work processes are managed by push,” they write, “it is difficult to keep track of ongoing tasks because many of them are in individual email inboxes, project files, and to-do lists.”

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