A few weeks ago, Jonny Frostick, a contractor at HSBC in the UK, realized he was having a heart attack. His first response was
Fuck I needed to meet with my manager tomorrow, this isn’t convenient.
Worrying that his wife would find him dead was the fourth thing that occurred to him.
His LinkedIn post — with a selfie taken in a hospital bed — has been viewed over 8 million times.
The first resolution he made, while still in the hospital, was ‘I’m not spending all day on zoom anymore’. Perhaps as a consequence of Frostick’s heart attack, and HSBC is piloting Zoomless Friday afternoons. Frostick has also resolved to ‘restructure’ his relationship to work.
However, it might be hard for many workers to reconsider their obsession with work, because our companies’ managers have their own thoughts on the subject. For example, Nick Martin reported early in the pandemic about employers amping up the stress of remote workers:
You can see this happening in all kinds of contexts, some of it in the form of smiling mandates from employers about “business as usual” while working from home. Managers at TheWall Street Journal instructed newly remote workers to answer work chat messages “within just a few minutes” and to leave cameras on during videoconference meetings, as if there’s some productivity or accountability benefit to letting your boss see what the shitty couch in your apartment looks like. The “good worker” during a pandemic is the good worker during any other time: always available to management. (“Now is not the time to screen calls.”)
Leaving aside the massive cluelessness of the WSJ email, let’s admit that we all have internalized the cult of overwork to some extent, even those of us who actively push back against it.
Perhaps we need to take a diametrically oppositional stance against the way that work is structured. The philosopher John Danaher, in The Case Against Work, boldly states,
Work, suitably-defined, is a bad thing and we should try to create a society in which it is no longer necessary.
His ‘suitably-defined’ is this:
The performance of an activity for economic reward or in the hope of receiving some such reward.
Danaher considers different aspects of badness, rejecting contingent badness (people could find other jobs that are less bad) and necessary badness (‘work by its very nature is something that contributes to the immiseration of life’), and finally settles on structural badness:
Structural Badness Thesis: The labour market in most developed countries has settled into an equilibrium pattern that makes work very bad for many people, and it is getting worse as a result of technical and institutional changes.
Danaher supports his argument with a reference to Elizabeth Anderson’s work on private government (see Companies are Private Governments). Consider that employment is tacitly or explicitly based on domination of the worker by the company:
The freedom-undermining power of the employment relationship is tolerated on two main grounds: (i) that it is something that the employee can freely enter and exit if they don’t like it and (ii) various employee protection laws reduce the freedom-undermining powers of employers. But as Anderson argues in her work, neither of these justifications is persuasive. In most countries, people have to work or, at least, prove that they are seeking work or unfit for work, in order to survive. Many employees, especially those at the lower-end of the income distribution, have limited options when it comes to work: if they exit one unjust arrangement they will have to enter another.
Danaher spends some time examining the fissuring and precarity of modern work. Fissuring is the result of outsourcing non-core work to contractors or freelancers, such as accounting for a law firm or driving cars for Uber. Fissured jobs that were formerly full-time, stable, and integrated with other aspects of belonging to a company’s operations have been broken out, and the outsourced workers become uninvolved in the goals and purpose of the original company. The result is widespread precarious working situations, often paid less than the formerly stable job, and with fewer if any benefits. The company’s shareholders may like the impact on the bottom line, but the human costs are too high, and many of the institutional benefits of business for society are scrapped.
Danaher lands on the end point of his structural badness thesis:
I think we have got caught up in a game that deadens our spirits and limits our horizons. We need to escape.
I am uncertain that we can fully escape the labyrinth of work, but we could start by tearing down at least some of the walls of the maze. This is why I am advocating minimum viable work:
Minimum viable work means operating with the greatest degree of individual autonomy, the lowest degree of managerial overhead, and the highest levels of cooperation without coercion.
And a corollary is that MVW involves carving out unnecessary bureaucratic time-wasting, and the stress that arises from productivity-theater bullshit of the sort mandated by the Wall Street Journal.
Some companies seem to be coming to their senses in this regard. In a piece by Bridget Ansel in 2016 on the culture of overwork, she cites companies’ efforts to step back:
Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for example, locks the doors at 6pm and bans employees from working from home because, as CEO Rich Sheridan says, “tired programmers start putting in lots of bugs”. Similarly, Leslie Perlow of Harvard Business School did an experiment with the Boston Consulting Group and found that mandating predictable, required time off resulted in higher employee satisfaction and retention. For these kinds of shorter work hours to be successful, of course, businesses must change the way they evaluate performance and focus on results and not hours.
That begins with ditching the hours-as-productivity model. Managers should instead focus on what is actually being produced rather than how long somebody stayed at work, at least for professional workers. That also means helping employees set realistic deadlines, and then getting out of the way. Giving workers more autonomy over their work results in greater efficiency, and results in more engaged, happier workers as well.
However an organization is structured, these behaviors need to apply to all. If any in positions of influence work long, long hours, the message is being sent. Instead, those people — more than anyone — need to go home for dinner, take breaks and vacations, ignore after-hours emails, and turn off the video on Zoom calls on bad hair days.