Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Tag: sociology

Empty labour is “the simulation of productivity”

I’m starting to read through Roland Paulsen’s work on the concept of “empty labor” for my new project on deliberate rest in the modern workplace, and was impressed by this 2015 article, “Non-work at work: Resistance or what?” (behind firewalls 🙁 alas) Here’s the abstract:

Based on 43 interviews conducted with employees who spend around half of their working-hours on non-work related activities such as ‘cyberloafing’, a typology of empty labour is suggested according to sense of work obligation and potential output in order to set the phenomenon of workplace time-appropriation into a theoretical context in which wasteful aspects of organization and management are taken into account. Soldiering, which emanates from a weak sense of work obligation in the individual, may entail aspects of resistance, but there are also less voluntary forms of empty labour deriving from a lack of relevant work tasks. All types of empty labour are, however, bound up with the simulation of productivity. Therefore, they ironically serve to maintain the capitalist firm’s reputation for efficiency.

I quite like the idea of empty labor as being more than just inefficiency, but rather a “simulation of productivity.”

In my own working days, I find it’s essential to remember that the feeling of productivity– the sense that I’ve got my mind around an idea, that I can see how to finish something– is not the same thing as actually doing the work. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve had to learn that the positive emotional hit that comes during those little a-ha moments are not a substitute for actual words on the page, or things delivered to clients. They’re simulations of productivity, not actual accomplishment.

“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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