aAfter a long period of constant fatigue, in pain and shortness of breath, one of the hardest things about having Covid for so long is finding self-worth outside the world of work. I am one of nearly 2 million people in the UK and 20 million in the US who are now facing this challenge. It’s something other disabled people know all too well: our culture glorifies work, often at the expense of health. Remember all the dreams of change we had at the start of the pandemic? Now I wonder: Could Covid-19’s long tail lead to a deeper shift away from our work-obsessed culture?
The time is right for one person. Before the pandemic, we had already worked a very long and hard time. British workers, for example, spend two and a half weeks of work each year than the average European, and half of the absenteeism is caused by stress, anxiety or depression. Meanwhile, workers in the United States spend an extra four hours a week at work, and three-quarters of workers experience significant stress in the workplace.
I see it clearly in my friends in their early twenties, having to choose between hard but self-preserving service work and the more “creative” jobs that consume their lives. Many of them, who suffer from anxiety and depression, will depend on how good they feel about themselves today on how “productive” they are. Pleasure became guilty. Rest the moment of failure. And fatigue, an almost inevitable milestone.
How did we get here? Some – most famously theorist Max Weber – trace him all the way to the rise of Protestantism in the 16th century. Others point to the propaganda campaigns of the twentieth century that followed both the world wars, and the recasting of work as a patriotic duty. More recently, the rhetoric of “interest pollsters” of the 2000s and Uber’s entrepreneurial economy has tightened restrictions. Regardless of its source, the cult of work dominates our lives.
We can do an anti-labor propaganda campaign. There will be infinite article for one. As long as no one gets a cut in wages, a reduction in working hours would absolutely improve life. A recent study showed that reducing the work week by one day can reduce carbon emissions by 30%. A four-day week would also alleviate gender inequality, redistributing the unpaid work done by women by 60% compared to men. On top of all of that, a series of high-profile experiments at Microsoft, Deloitte and Kickstarter show that working less increases the effectiveness of the work we do overall.
And none of this begins to cover the secondary effects: imagine how easy our health care system would be for stress-related illness to decline, for local democracy to flourish where people had more time to participate, great art that people might make, and technology breakthroughs…
Combined with my own experience, Covid-19 has made this a live issue for all of us. In addition to working from home, there has been a 15% rise in companies offering a four-day week since the pandemic began. A recent survey found that nearly 60% of the British public supported four days a week, and other surveys showed an increase in managers’ interest in the idea. Earlier this month, 4 Day Week Global and Thinktank Autonomy launched a new experiment where 3,000 people at 70 companies will adopt a four-day week.
This is exciting, but it wouldn’t be enough on its own. Our work ethic is deep, and historically, reducing working time has only been painstakingly achieved by trade unions and social movements. While the numerous four-day-week trials are beneficial, blue-collar workers are under-represented in them. It is also possible that some will see workers enjoying more free time as a threat. (I always remember John E. Edgerton, president of the American National Association of Manufacturers, who was quoted in 1920 as saying “Nothing breeds extremism more than unhappiness unless it is leisure.”) Right now, unions are the only thing that cuts people’s working hours off. working class today. The 2018 Telecom Workers Union victory for postal workers in Britain, and IG Metall for engineering workers in Germany, are two recent examples.
Now, in this dystopian time for the British and American union movement, with the historic union movements of Amazon and Starbucks, and with the so-called “summer of discontent” in the UK, will we be able to meaningfully influence not only the rewards of work, but the necessity of the work itself?
If unions do demand shorter work weeks, they will keep pace with the young people who are leading the broader cultural movement. During the height of the pandemic, in a period called the Great Resignation, more young people were leaving work in the United States than they had been in decades. The hashtag #QuitTok and 44,000 videos created on TikTok along with the track, “I don’t have a dream job. I don’t dream of working,” suggest collective disappointment, as do the 1.7 million members of the r/antiwork Reddit thread.
Journalist Rosie Spinks persuasively argues that we’re culturally swaying away from the personal brands of 2000s entrepreneurship, and back to the ’90s toward the “slacker” personality: -man, stay-true-to-yourself-exhaustion.” I breathe a sigh of relief because perhaps something is replacing the influencer, the annoying factor, the ideal I grew up with.
For me, the Long Covid, which I’ve had since the beginning of this year, has made this very clear. The disease requires rest. Not just a day or two in bed, but months and months of rest. Exhaustion can leave you too exhausted for the simplest things; No TV, no leaving the house, no conversations longer than 10 minutes. Although I know the disease well now, I often fail to get enough rest. Partly this is a natural worry, but it also exemplifies the ideal of solid taste as the only true source of success, value, and purpose.
One thing I’ve learned is that – while we wait for the collective action we need, from unions, movements and government – small shifts can help now. We can all give each other permission to slow down and rest. We can all question our inner motivations to stay busy. And in the space we create, new questions to measure success may emerge. Instead of “How productive am I today?” We might start by asking a question like “How much did you give me for free today?” or “How much do I support others?”