Clocking off: is the tide turning on overwork?

Lucy Purdy

We explore new and alternative working models that are shaking up the 40-hour work week

Overwork and a poor work-life balance are problems familiar to many. Not only is a daily commute of two hours or more a reality for 3.7 million workers in the UK, according to the Trades Union Congress, but new research suggests some of us even work in our dreams, mulling over algorithms and problems while asleep. So-called 24 hour capitalism is taking a toll on our relationships, health and wellbeing.

In 2015 we reported on more fulfilling alternatives to the standard working week. “If our needs are to play, love, create and to connect with others and with nature, there seems to be a renewed effort to ask how we can nurture them,” we wrote. “How could we better devote our energy and time to the areas of life that work – and money – cannot reach?”

Signs of change are now emerging. As cases of ‘karoshi’ – death from overwork – rise in Japan, in October its government issued the country’s first ever white paper on the phenomenon. Prime minister Shinzo Abe now plans a legal limit to the amount of overtime a person can work every month and aims, by 2020, to persuade employees to take at least 70 per cent of their paid holiday.

Work-life balance for all is now at the top of the agenda

Meanwhile, more and more companies in Sweden are experimenting with six-hour working days. They think it would make people happier and improve productivity to boot.

In the UK there is a fresh drive to accurately calculate the work people actually do. The Office for National Statistics launched its ‘unpaid work calculator’ in November, allowing people to estimate their earnings if paid to perform tasks such as cleaning, cooking or volunteering.

Working Families, a charity supporting working parents in the UK, said its latest annual National Work Life Week was its most successful to date. “This is testament to the extent to which work-life balance for all is now at the top of the agenda,” said Elizabeth Whitehead from the charity. It included Go Home on Time Day, a day of action to shine a light on overwork when the social media hashtag #timetorebalance reached more than three million people.

Meanwhile the Mental Health Foundation, which considers work demands the biggest challenge to mental health in the UK, advises working ‘smart, not long’. Its tips include urging people to speak up when work becomes too much and to counteract overwork with exercise and hobbies. There are signs too that young people are reluctant to continue the trend of increased toil: 81 per cent of people born after 1980 believe they should set their own work patterns.

Photo: Evan Blaser


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  • Terry Clay

    It is a great pity that work should be seen as the opposite of life (as in work/life balance).
    Not all work is bad, it can be creative, fun, fulfilling and engrossing to the extent of motivating people to do long hours voluntarily – but I recognise this is not the case for many people.
    I just think we should also look at improving our concept of work to become more about what Buddhists call ‘right livelihood’ and this might involve looking for ways to live our lives differently too.

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  • Ninjasluvnoodles

    Very good point Terry. I think we should all be striving to find that passion that we can do daily that in turn does not ‘feel’ like ‘work’. We become slaves to the notion of needing to provide for a living…for a family. Make as much money as you can to survive. But you see so many people who are so very unhappy with this one sided ideal. There definitely needs to be change.

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