Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Tag: overwork

My South China Morning Post piece on 996 and the culture of overwork

Orchard Road

There’s a debate going on in China over 996, the practice of working from 9 to 9, six days a week. (Some very tired yet still imaginative writers have suggested that the next thing will be 007, working from midnight to midnight, seven days a week.)

996 has been a part of Chinese startup culture for a while, but recently people have started pushing back, especially after the CEO of Youzan, a Hong Kong-based e-commerce company, announced that he was going to demand the company adopt those hours in 2019. A couple weeks ago, a leaked internal email from JD.com combined an announcement of layoffs with an exhortation to fight for more work, “regardless of performance, position, tenure, personal well-being issues or family reasons.” This came a month after another message that “asked employees to make ‘full contributions’ by working 12 hours a day at least five days a week.” More generally, it seems to be the case that as the economy starts to slow, and as tech companies have a harder time getting venture funding, etc., they’re trying to enforce longer working hours as a way of sustaining their valuations.

I couldn’t pass up the chance to add something to the debate, and so my piece on why 996 is stupid, and how and why companies should work 4-day weeks, is out in the South China Morning Post.

The recent debate over working hours at China’s tech companies hinges on a question: are long hours truly necessary, or are they simply exploitation?

Advocates of the 996 work schedule – 9am to 9pm, six days a week – say it places young professionals on a fast, steep learning curve, allowing them to unlock achievements they would have thought impossible. It shows companies which employees are most passionate about and devoted to their work. It is necessary for companies that want to do world-changing work. And in a highly competitive, always-on global economy and job market, long hours are the inevitable price of success.

Yet, every one of those statements is wrong.

I had originally written, “But to paraphrase Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, every one of those statements is wrong,” but I can see why they’d cut it.

Interestingly some of the debate in China over 996 has migrated to Github, interestingly, and it seems to have worried the government enough to get Github’s 996.icu repository banned in China. (Even more worrying, there are some reports that Twitter was blocking search results on 996, even for Western users.) Among Westerners following the debate, there’s an argument about whether this is something companies in the US and Europe need to emulate. Some make the case that Western companies need to double down on the workaholism, while Forbes contributor Stephanie Denning points out that for all its success, Alibaba seems less productive than eBay or Amazon, and James Stanier, an engineering VP for English startup Brandwatch, arguing in Medium that “We should work hard, but most importantly, we should go home.”

Now back to writing the book, so I can really make the case for the 4-day week!

Aging and work

Last week I was on BBC Radio 4’s morning show talking about REST and the need to change work and careers in a world where life expectancies are going up. Since then, I’ve seen several other pieces about this subject.

In the Globe and Mail, Linda Nazareth asks, “Should we consider delaying full-time work until 40?” As Paul Johnson has pointed out in our BBC Radio 4 conversation, you could see retirement as a system in which we bank the time we’ve saved by improved productivity at work, and spend it at the end of our lives. But, as Nazareth points out, longer lives should make us rethink retirement, and not just along the lines of raising retirement ages:

if everyone’s lifespan is getting longer (and hopefully healthier), maybe we should think about how traditional work lives could change. Some figure this should simply mean everyone working a couple of more decades, which would give them more income in the years when they are indeed retired….

Another model suggests that we think of work more creatively, not as something that we do intensively for several decades but rather as something that we dip in and out of over the course of our lives.

In conversations about the challenges of work-life balance, I’ve argued that one of the big problems we all face (but women in particular) is that we work in a system in which we’re expected to invest most intensively in our careers at exactly the same time we start families. And forget about prioritizing one over the other: we’re supporsed to work like we don’t have kids, while raising kids like we don’t have jobs.

I’m hardly the only one to notice this: in her article, Nazareth draws in part on the work of Laura Carstensen, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, whose work on extending careers could help ease these pressures was the subject of a recent article in Quartz by Corinne Purtill:

For people smack in the mad mid-life rush of managing full-time careers, dependent children, and aging parents, nothing feels so short in supply as time.

But there is time to get it all done, says psychologist Laura Carstensen…. The only problem is that we’ve arranged life all wrong.

A woman who is 40 years old today can expect to live another 45 years, on average, while 5% will live to see their 100th birthday. The average 40-year-old man will live another 42. For many people, most of those years will be healthy enough to continue work that doesn’t involve intense physical labor. So why are we still packing all of our career and family obligations into a few frantic decades?

Rather than a four-decade professional sprint that ends abruptly at 65, Carstensen argues, we should be planning for marathon careers that last longer but have more breaks along the way for learning, family needs, and obligations outside the workplace.

I wrote about how Australian historian Inga Clendinnen pioneered this kind of model decades ago, and that her example suggests that we think of work-life balance as something that plays out over years and decades, and that our lives would be better and easier (or at least we would be more forgiving and realistic about our lives) if we didn’t expect every day to be a jewel of work-life balance.

I also suspect that shorter working hours could help with this, by allowing more time for important but competing activities, and by offering a model of work that would support longer, more sustainable careers.

Rest with Alex Pang, Episode 1: Stephan Aarstol and the five-hour day at Tower Paddleboards

Digital Surfway

So the first episode of my podcast Rest with Alex Pang is now up: it’s an interview with Stephan Aarstol, the founder of pioneering stand-up paddleboard and beach lifestyle company Tower Paddleboards and author of the book The Five-Hour Workday.

Aarstol’s name has come up in a number of other interviews I’ve conduced with founders who have implemented shorter working hours at their companies, and so it made sense to start with him and the Tower Paddleboards story.

You can listen to the episode through the player below, or you can subscribe here (I recommend the latter). Either way, enjoy!

Working hours in South Korea are coming down

The Guardian reports that the South Korean government has voted to cut back the ‘inhumanely long’ 68-hour working week:

Employees in one of the most overworked countries in Asia are about to get a break after South Korea passed a bill to reduce the typical work week in an effort to improve quality of life and boost employment.

South Korea’s National Assembly overwhelmingly passed the law which cut the maximum weekly work hours to 52, down from 68. The law comes into force in July and will apply to large companies before being rolled out to smaller businesses.

The thing is, Korea’s productivity is not as high as countries like Germany and the Netherlands, which work far shorter hours– which suggests that those working hours are not well-spent.

“a life spent dutifully responding to emails is a dull one indeed. And ‘wasted’ time is, in fact, highly fulfilling”

The World Economic Forum blog has an Olivia Goldhill piece that argues for the importance of “wasted” time.

when we spend so long frantically chasing productivity, we refuse to take real breaks. We put off sleeping in, or going for a long walk, or reading by the window—and, even if we do manage time away from the grind, it comes with a looming awareness of the things we should be doing, and so the experience is weighed down by guilt….

The truth is, work expands to fill the time it’s given and, for most of us, we could spend considerably fewer hours at the office and still get the same amount done.

It also has a nice plug for REST, and the Nautilus excerpt of the four hours chapter from a few weeks ago (which has generated a lot of press, proving that you never know what’s going to take off).

“physicians deserve humane expectations in training and practice”

Lisa Merlo, writing in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association:

At the heart of excellent medical treatment is the physician who provides competent, compassionate care. So, rather than treating physicians as dispensable and teaching them to put themselves, their health, and their well-being last, we must teach medical students, residents, and practicing physicians that they have a responsibility to maintain their physical and mental health and to reach out to colleagues who appear to be struggling. Physicians already face pressure to work harder, faster, and longer on a daily basis. This burden begins during medical school and continues well into practice, with spoken and unspoken directives to put patients first; to avoid burdening colleagues; to pick up the slack for team members; to forego vacations; to come to work even when physically ill. But the evidence clearly demonstrates that this way of life is not sustainable, and it does not promote excellence in the practice of medicine. Ironically, when a physician neglects her own well-being, she does a disservice to her patients; when he ignores his own distress, he places undue burden on his colleagues to compensate for mistakes. Yet the recent focus on improving patient safety by targeting medical errors—though extremely important—has largely ignored this vital underlying contributor to quality of patient care.

The time has come to finally and emphatically demand that physicians deserve humane expectations in training and practice and have a right to opportunities for self-care. Taking appropriate breaks or vacations, spending time in mindful meditation, completing self-help interventions, sharing personal/professional struggles with colleagues, and seeking necessary medical and mental health treatment should be viewed as a marker of professionalism, not a sign of weakness.

“We would all become wealthy entrepreneurs like Richard Branson. What a cruel joke that turned out to be.”

The great Peter Fleming has a piece in The Guardian on “The way to a better work-life balance? Unions, not self-help:”

Overwork has become an epidemic in the western world; health officials put it in the same league as cigarette smoking regarding the damage it does to people’s health. The social damage incurred by loved ones and friends can be just as bad….

Flexible employment systems were once sold to us as a path to more time off and greater autonomy. We would all become wealthy entrepreneurs like Richard Branson. What a cruel joke that turned out to be.

One reason I admire Fleming’s work is that this subject– why overwork has become the new normal, and why it seems so pervasive and inescapable– is really hard for me to write about. I talk about it in REST, and I think I do so adequately, but Fleming has a way of summarizing the issue and the forces driving it that always leaves me impressed. Just as a really good musician can admire virtuosity better than anyone else, so too can I say that his writing reflects a level of thinking about this subject that few of us can match.

Notice when you read this piece how he lays out the normative and cultural reasons for workaholism, then segues effortlessly to the structural issues at play as well. Too often we talk about overwork as a personal choice, but it’s really not; and the fact that Fleming sees the personal dimension of overwork– most of us really DO at some level feel like we’re choosing these hours– doesn’t keep him from arguing that there need to be collective and policy responses to it.

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