Between the pressures and costs to bear from the holidays and growing 24-hour on-call work expectations that come with increasing digitization, it can sometimes feel like we need a break from our de facto vacation. A 2010 study by the Institute of Leadership and Management found that many workers were more stressed upon returning from vacation due to fears of a mountain of responsibilities awaiting them. Worse still, 61% of those 2500 managers surveyed said they felt obligated to work during their vacations. The US is the only post-industrial nation that does not mandate paid vacation time, an oversight which makes even the hardest working employees more vulnerable.
The two-day weekend -short though it may seem- used to be even shorter. In fact, while the concept that a working week has a defined terminus has existed at least since the mid-17th century, the weekend that we now (sometimes) enjoy only began to take shape in the last century. The seven-day week itself has its origins in ancient Babylon from whence it spread to Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
Fragments of ancient Babylonian calendar. Source: British Museum, London, Tablet Sm. 162.
Historically, many cultures have had each working week end on a religious day of rest. Of course, only having one official day off did not stop people from simply not turning up the next, whether to sleep off hangovers, catch up on domestic chores, or just enjoy leisure activities. In late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century England and America, the practice of “keeping Saint Monday” was so widespread, employers felt that this mass absenteeism was hurting business. To counteract this effect, some began to offer half-days off, specifically Saturday afternoons. This gave rise to the Victorian definition of “week-end”, whose first known print usage in English dates to 1879.
As the Industrial Revolution swept through the Western world, a combination of labor strikes, increasingly consumerist/ leisure-driven values, and the support of prominent factory owners eventually ushered in a new era of two-day weekends. It wouldn’t be until 1908 that a full Saturday would be provided as a day off when a New England cotton mill made the decision to accommodate Jewish employees. Observing the sabbath on Saturday previously forced them to make up their work on Sundays, which offended some in the local Christian community.
That same year, the Model T came on the market. By 1926, after doubling his workers’ wages to attract and retain the best talent —effectively raising wages throughout Detroit— Henry Ford introduced the five-day work week. He didn’t do so out of sheer goodwill to his fellow man.
He had the foresight to understand that people needed both disposable income and time off to purchase and use the goods they helped to produce. By allowing his employees to have a break from their daily slog, they had the resources to not only buy but also drive the very cars they were making, thereby boosting morale, productivity, and profits. In short, days of rest improved people’s lives and by extension, the economy. It wasn’t long before other companies followed suit, furthered by the Great Depression when shorter hours were believed to remedy mass un(der)employment.
The famed economist Keynes once predicted that continuous technological innovation would eventually shorten our work week to just fifteen hours. Unfortunately, the very opposite has come to pass due to ever-growing income inequality, the Joneses, and the Diderot effect.
We live in an age where obnoxiously conspicuous consumption permeates media and is celebrated in spite of widespread job and healthcare insecurity. As a result, many people are –even those who may be said to have “good” jobs- are desperate to validate their status and work more and more in order to spend in the way they think they should, adding further pressure to those who can barely make ends meet.
A 2014 Gallup poll showed that only 42% of Americans working full-time adhere to 40 hours per week. In reality, the average is closer to 47 hours. Salaried employees work an average of 49 hours a week, compared with 44 hours for people paid by the hour. A quarter of salaried workers said they spend 60 or more hours a week on the job. By contrast, France has had 35-hour work weeks since 2000 and still suffers from high unemployment rates. Interestingly, French white-collar employees often work well beyond thirty-five hours a week but are properly compensated for it, whereas their blue-collar counterparts are restricted to that amount. Many actually wish to work more hours but cannot. Indeed, controversy rages on over the obligatory closure of shops on Sundays despite France now being a secular nation.
Village of Varzy, France. Photo credit: Thierry Zoccolan/AFP/Getty Images.
What’s to be done then, you ask? Well, there are a few things on the table. Some countries have experimented with shorter work days while others have piloted universal basic income. Finland is the only one to have tried both. The New Economics Foundation made a compelling case for the 21-hour work week nearly a decade ago and their arguments have not been lost on labor activists. In Germany, a country notorious for its billion hours of unpaid overtime in 2016 alone, a union representing 3.9 million workers is campaigning for a 28-hour work week. Those opting for the reduced hours would be guaranteed the right to return to full-time work as well as a cash bonus to compensate for the reduced hours.
Sweden’s two-year trial of six-hour days ended when they ran out of funding and made headlines when government officials were quoted as citing the unworkability of sky-high costs. However, the benefits to participating employees were undeniable and Gothenburg’s councillor, Daniel Bernmar, confirmed its many successes. Perhaps more tellingly, multiple municipalities are continuing the experiment in labor sectors suffering from high rates of illness and burnout such as nursing and social work.
From Kenya to Canada, the results from UBI have been overwhelmingly positive. It is worth noting that in addition to obvious income and food security, participants reported higher levels of independence, lower levels of discord in their personal relationships, and broadened definitions of “productive work”. The idea is nothing new. Martin Luther King, Jr., for instance, advocated basic income in 1967 during a speech at Stanford.
Around the world, its appeal is growing. According to an Ipsos MORI poll, the policy is finding favor across all age groups with 49% of 18-75 year olds in the UK supporting basic income. Five Scottish cities are preparing to trial UBI this year. In California, the mayor of Stockton (located just east of San Francisco with nearly a 25% poverty rate) is gearing up the city’s UBI experiment while Oakland’s project is funded by Y Combinator Research. India’s chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramanian, has also floated the idea that universal basic income could be tested within the next two years.
Here at home, we’re starting a bit smaller with incremental minimum wage increases. Although it is not without its flaws and continues to be met with resistance, it is ultimately the humane thing to do when one considers that most wages have not kept pace with cost-of-living.
2014 May Day March. Photo credit: Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA.
Moreover, full-time employment rates never quite recovered from the 2008 recession and many workers are forced to do more in less time and for less pay for fear of losing their jobs. This uncertainty also has a ripple effect with serious consequences for public health as well as the economy since feelings of powerlessness and chronic stress inhibit creativity and productivity.
It is estimated that workplace stress costs the US economy up to $190 billion a year in healthcare costs. A recent Australian study also found that working beyond thirty-nine hours a week caused a decline in mental health. People are also afraid to spend their money because they fear (and not without good reason) that new technologies will render their jobs obsolete. The current state of the so-called US Fear Index, a.k.a. the Vix Index, which monitors stock market volatility, has been likened to the “calm before the storm”. In May 2017, it fell to its lowest level since 1993, just as it had before the 2008 recession hit.
In the 21st century, even the most skilled and dedicated of workers may suffer the perils of the gig economy. And in spite of the purported flexibility of contract and remote work, about one-tenth of American employees who tried to implement a flexible schedule said they faced negative consequences such as being denied promotions. “Millennials”, in particular, are least likely to take vacation in an attempt to defy stereotypes about their entitlement and lackadaisical nature.
Regardless of what policymakers decide, these tangled issues must be addressed at the root and that begins with healthier work cultures. We as a society need to take a long hard look at how well we’re prioritizing our health and treatment of each other. There likely isn’t any single solution to these dilemmas but we won’t find any without first having the conversation.