Health and Fitness

Seán Moncrieff: Here’s your new year’s resolution: do less work

When I’m walking home, I can’t help but see in the windows of other houses. It’s dark. Everybody does it. I’m not weird.

Disappointingly, none of them are having orgies or worshipping Satan, but it’s striking how many people are sitting at a computer.

It’s 2022. It’s astounding to realise that this working-from-home thing has been going on for nearly two years. Herself is one of those people. She’s employed by a Donnybrook-based broadcasting company that she doesn’t want me to name, and for her it’s been a largely positive experience. She does miss seeing colleagues, and sometimes the definition of a “day off” becomes fuzzy, but it gives her flexibility and suits her temperament: Herself is the Queen of Busyness. She can draft a running order and clean a toilet at the same time.

But for others, the past two years may have been torture. Not just the isolation, but the daily struggle to be motivated, to overcome the almost irresistible procrastination. Some may have learned a lot about themselves in the process and taught themselves new habits. Some may be still struggling. Some may be saying to themselves: sod it. I’m giving this up.

The pandemic and lockdowns gifted people the chance to reassess their lives, to decide what’s important: and to conclude that there’s too much daily grind

According to surveys carried out last September, more than 40 per cent of workers, internationally and in Ireland, plan to switch jobs. The figure was about 20 per cent before the pandemic. There are various reasons for this, but I would guess that the largest factor has been how the pandemic and lockdowns gifted people the chance to reassess their lives, to decide what’s important: and to conclude that there’s too much daily grind.

A wave of mass resignations hasn’t happened here yet, but there are signs of it beginning in the UK and the US. And in the post-Christmas period we are in now, when things are a bit less frantic, when we are considering the year ahead, this may well be the time when people resolve to start doing something about it.

Another survey carried out in the UK last year asked people to describe their ideal job. A lot of the findings were what you might expect: wonderful colleagues who become friends, understanding bosses, free cups of tea, a day off on your birthday. But perhaps most significantly, what those surveyed wanted most was a short commute and fewer hours: averaged out, it came to a four-day week, with each day lasting 6½ hours. 

It wasn’t just about flexibility and pleasant working conditions. It was about doing less work.

Perhaps there has been a pandemic epiphany. Working from home, employees have been less subject to guilt-laden terms like “commitment”; they have come to realise that a lot of the learnings-and-hugs jargon that comes out of their HR department is singularly aimed at screwing more hours out of them.

As far as I can ascertain, the number of companies offering a 26-hour week is currently zero. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. A century ago, the working week was 70 hours. And in various parts of the world, the four-day week is being seriously considered. A trial of it in New Zealand produced considerably happier employees, whose productivity was unaffected. In Iceland, an even larger trial produced the same results. Many of those employees permanently shortened their hours. 

Understandably, this might be a terrifying prospect for many employers. Because it represents not just a profound economic and social change, but a philosophical one: the idea that there is more to life than work, finally made flesh. When employees – when people – start to define themselves outside the narrow parameters of their job descriptions, employers start to lose their power over them, and perhaps over many other parts of our society too.

Bringing all this about is another matter, of course: it would come with all manner of complications. But look: I’ll make a start. Usually, this column is 650 words long. This week it’s 649.

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