The 4-hour workday vs. no work at all: Utopian and dystopian visions of laboring

Could we be more creative and productive by working only four hours a day? If the work habits of folks like Charles Darwin are any indication, the answer may be a resounding “yes.”

In a feature article for The Week, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less (2016), looks at the work habits of highly accomplished creative people through history and finds that they:

…all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to succeed, and an almost superhuman capacity to focus. Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they only spent a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important work. The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with friends, or just sitting and thinking.

As for Darwin specifically, he authored 19 books, including the paradigm-making Origin of Species. Once a workaholic, he settled on a daily schedule that looked something like this, as Pang writes:

  • “After his morning walk and breakfast, Charles Darwin was in his study by 8 a.m. and worked a steady hour and a half.”
  • “At 9:30 he would read the morning mail and write letters.”
  • “At 10:30, Darwin returned to more serious work, sometimes moving to his aviary or greenhouse to conduct experiments.”
  • “By noon, he would declare, ‘I’ve done a good day’s work,’ and set out on a long walk.”
  • “When he returned after an hour or more, Darwin had lunch and answered more letters.”
  • “At 3 p.m. he would retire for a nap; an hour later he would arise, take another walk, then return to his study until 5:30, when he would join his wife and family for dinner.”

So, if you want to know how to write 19 books and fundamentally change the way we think about human evolution, you might start by cutting back on the work hours! Alright, maybe it’s not that simple — I’m guessing that Darwin’s mind was hard at work even during his “down time.” In any event, Pang’s full article is a thought-provoking read and challenges the notion that a constant nose to the grindstone makes us more creative.

When technology eliminates jobs

The idea of the four-hour workday may be enormously appealing to those who enjoy flexibility in their work schedules and who are involved in creative endeavors that generate income based on the result rather than the time clocked in on a job. But what about the vast majority of workers whose livelihoods require being present on the job for x hours a day? What if their work literally disappears? Yuval Noah Harari writes for The Guardian:

Most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. As artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs.

 . . . The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms. Consequently, by 2050 a new class of people might emerge – the useless class. People who are not just unemployed, but unemployable.

If you want a prime example of how this is already occurring, consider corporate responses to fast-food workers who are advocating for a living wage: These workers are at risk of being replaced by robots. As Kate Taylor reports for Business Insider:

“It’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who’s inefficient making $15 an hour bagging french fries,” former McDonald’s USA CEO Ed Rensi said in an interview on Tuesday on the Fox Business Network’s “Mornings with Maria.” “It’s nonsense and it’s very destructive and it’s inflationary and it’s going to cause a job loss across this country like you’re not going to believe.”

According to Rensi, rising labor costs are forcing chains to cut entry-level jobs and replace workers with machines. Currently, Wendy’s, McDonald’s, and Panera are rolling out kiosks across the US, in part because of the rising cost of labor.

Long hours by choice…or not

Here in America, we love to extol the virtues of the work ethic, and for better or worse, it shows. For example, Ben Steverman reported for Bloomberg last fall on a new study by economists Alexander Bick (Arizona State U), Bettina Bruggemann (McMaster U), and Nicola Fuchs-Schundeln (Goethe U) shows that Americans put in some of the longest work hours per week compared to their European peers:

A new study tries to measure precisely how much more Americans work than Europeans do overall. The answer: The average person in Europe works 19 percent less than the average person in the U.S. That’s about 258 fewer hours per year, or about an hour less each weekday. Another way to look at it: U.S. workers put in almost 25 percent more hours than Europeans.

This study adds to the continuous string of research studies documenting the long work hours put in by Americans, including a 1997 International Labour Organization report showing that “US workers put in the longest hours on the job in industrialized nations.”

Of course, many of those working long hours aren’t doing so by choice. As has been reported over and again in the news media, the overall state of the American economy and labor market is such that millions of workers have been compelled to take two or three lower-paying, part-time jobs in order to make ends meet.

I think we’re in quite a pickle here. Overwork — by choice or challenging circumstance — is sapping creativity, health, and overall well-being. Technology — a term that instantly causes some people to experience paroxysms of awe and wonder — threatens to make a lot of people unemployable. At the very top, a small number of people (think the McDonald’s ex-CEO in Taylor’s article) stand to grow increasingly wealthy from this dynamic.

Working while distracted (and wired)

I was less distracted when this was my PC (image of Commodore 64 computer courtesy of Wikipedia)

I was less distracted when this was my PC (Commodore 64 computer, courtesy of Wikipedia)

Raise your hand if the daily torrent of news coming out of Washington D.C. continues to serve as an unwanted distraction, perhaps intrusion, at work.

If you follow the news at all and have access to the Internet or a news media source during work time, my guess is that you’re raising your hand with me. In fact, I cannot recall another sustained period of ongoing news developments that has so commanded our attention. Dramatic, sometimes disorienting developments seem to occur on a daily basis, and the practically instantaneous nature about the way news is reported in the digital era has created news cycles within news cycles.

To be sure, the political news developments today are attention-grabbing. But let’s not forget the role of technology in making them so of-the-moment. Imagine, for example, how completely distracting major events of the Second World War would’ve been had modern communications technologies been available to cover and report them. (Picture embedded reporters covering, say, carrier launches of aircraft during the Battle of Midway!)

Another more bottom-line impact is organizational productivity. How is this ongoing drama affecting the aggregate outputs of workplaces in both qualitative and quantitative terms? I strongly suspect the answer is not a positive one.

How do you take and keep notes?

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Janet uses a hardcover sketchbook for her notes.

Okay, dear readers — especially academicians, students, lifelong learners, frequent conference goers, and other “information society” folks — here’s my question: How do you take and keep notes?

This Way Out (1972), a classic early guidebook to non-traditional higher education by John Coyne and Tom Hebert, includes some marvelous chapters on lifelong learning skills and practices, pre-digital style. It says this about taking notes:

Make a decision now for life, just how you are going to keep your lecture and reading notes. We wish we had done this earlier so that we could have saved them. We’re always in situations where we take notes. Watching a TV discussion, public lectures, conversations. We have finally settled on 4-by-6 inch scratch pads, and yellow legal pads for interviews and long lectures. There must be better systems. One friend takes notes (any size), quotes and interesting miscellaneous Xeroxes, stapes them to 5-by-8 inch cards which he labels and keeps in a card file.

Of course, their note taking system is a blast from the past. The mere idea of recording notes onto paper is foreign to a lot of folks, especially in this digital age of tablets and software programs like Evernote and OneNote.

That said, I remain drawn to taking notes the old fashioned way. It is an aesthetic as well as educational preference.

For some reason, this topic has been on my mind recently. In a recent post I wrote about a fellow singing class student who keeps written notes on each voice class session. At annual board meetings and workshops of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network in New York City, I’ve taken delight in watching peace educator Janet Gerson‘s use of hardcover sketchbooks to take and preserve her notes, as well as to host her artistic forays and distractions.

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And at times she goes artistic.

Alas, unlike Janet, and ignoring the sound advice of Mssrs. Coyne & Hebert, I have not developed a uniform personal note taking system. When I have my act together, I am biased toward Moleskine notebooks. But I also use other brands of notebooks and sketchbooks, my weekly (paper) calendar, scraps of paper, and yes, my computer and tablet. (Sidebar: Even Moleskine has bowed to technology, now offering a “Smart Writing System” that integrates paper and digital writing using a “paper tablet.”)

Individual preferences aside, for purposes of learning and retention, taking notes by hand may very well be more effective than typing them into a laptop or tablet, as suggested by a study published in the research journal of the Association for Psychological Science:

Dust off those Bic ballpoints and college-ruled notebooks — research shows that taking notes by hand is better than taking notes on a laptop for remembering conceptual information over the long term. The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

So, this is my gentle case for taking notes like some of us learned in grade school. Here’s to heading over to your local stationery or office supply store and picking up a notebook or sketchbook, along with a nice pen that makes writing a pleasure.

“Rage-aholic” behavior and intermittent explosive disorder

Mayo Clinic webpage

Mayo Clinic webpage

Informally, we might call them “rage-aholics.” You know, those persons who dial up their anger from 0 to 90 miles per hour in a split second, seemingly at the slightest provocation. They account for many instances of negative and abusive workplace behaviors: Bullying, incivility, and physical violence. We also see plenty of them in domestic violence situations.

Some of these individuals may have a clinically diagnosable condition called intermittent explosive disorder. The Mayo Clinic describes IED this way:

Intermittent explosive disorder involves repeated, sudden episodes of impulsive, aggressive, violent behavior or angry verbal outbursts in which you react grossly out of proportion to the situation. Road rage, domestic abuse, throwing or breaking objects, or other temper tantrums may be signs of intermittent explosive disorder.

These intermittent, explosive outbursts cause you significant distress, negatively impact your relationships, work and school, and they can have legal and financial consequences.

Intermittent explosive disorder is a chronic disorder that can continue for years, although the severity of outbursts may decrease with age. Treatment involves medications and psychotherapy to help you control your aggressive impulses.

IED appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and the current 5th edition of the DSM now recognizes verbal aggression as a qualifying behavior. The National Institute for Mental Health has estimated that some 16 million Americans may be affected by IED during some point in their lives.

I’ll offer my hypothesis that online communications, especially e-mail and social media, are fueling behaviors that might be dubbed rage-aholic and could reflect the presence of IED. We’re certainly seeing a lot of that rapidly dialed-up anger online these days, and it’s adding to our stress and anxiety levels. Alas, the comments following many an article or Facebook posting about the current political season might suggest an epidemic.

Our New Dark Age of Rage

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When it comes to emotions driving so much of our public discourse and individual decision making these days, rage seems to be all the rage. Anger and vitriol expressed face-to-face and online are often overcoming calmer, kinder, more reasoned voices, sometimes with harsh and even tragic consequences.

Last month, security officers at the Cincinnati Zoo had to kill a beloved gorilla after a young boy had found his way into the animal’s living space. Angry public outcry emerged from certain circles, with some even claiming that the animal should’ve been spared at the expense of the boy.

On June 12, a man apparently fueled by both homophobia and ISIS-inspired rage killed 49 people and injured 53 others at an Orlando nightclub.

Last week, a slight majority of British voters, many of whom were stoked by angry resentment toward immigrants and outsiders, voted for their country to leave the European Union. Now that the predictable and unsettling tidal wave of consequences has been triggered, many of the “leave” voters are asking themselves, what did I do? 

And, of course, there are Donald Trump’s ongoing outbursts, which are calculated to whip up resentment and anger. They are the major reasons why this is the ugliest, most vulgar U.S. presidential campaign in memory.

Folks, it appears that the virulent anger we often see expressed in the comments sections of online news articles and commentary is now coming out from behind the keyboard and manifesting itself in very ugly ways.  How ironic that all of our whiz bang technology is helping to take us back into a New Dark Age of humanity. We can and must do better than this.

 

The French (Dis)connection: No work e-mails outside traditional working hours

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Dominique Mosbergen reports for the Huffington Post on a new French labor law that bans after hours work e-mails:

Checking your work email on a weekend or a holiday? In France, where employees have been granted “the right to disconnect,” that’s now against the law.

Buried inside a recently enacted — and hotly contested — French labor reform bill is an amendment banning companies of 50 or more employees from sending emails after typical work hours. “The right to disconnect” amendment, as it’s so called, is aimed at minimizing the negative impacts of being excessively plugged in.

Lest any work-obsessed, provincial American get in a huff and start hurling insults at the collective French work ethic, Lauren Collins offers some clarifying cultural points in the New Yorker:

The notion of the indolent French worker, for one thing, is a fiction: the country’s hourly productivity, for example, rivals that of the United States, and French workers put in more hours a year than their supposedly more industrious German counterparts. The difference, then, is not in our attitudes toward our jobs but in our attitudes toward the rest of our lives. In France, a personal life is not a passive entity, the leftover bits of one’s existence that haven’t been gobbled up by the office, but a separate entity, the sovereignty of which is worth defending, even if that means that someone’s spreadsheet doesn’t get finished on time.

Okay, I’m not suggesting any such law for the U.S. The objections — legal, practical, everything — would come in from all directions, not just from large employers with round-the-clock operations. (Believe me, as an academician I send e-mails to our support staff at all hours of the day and night, though in no way do I expect responses when they’re not working.)

But I raise this to tweak our perspectives about work, work-life balance, and the importance of our time spent away from work. I think it’s especially germane to wage workers and lower-paid salaried workers who are expected to be at the beck and call of their higher-paid co-workers. It would be healthier for everyone if work’s e-influence wasn’t so 24/7. (Yup, I am writing this as a memo-to-self.)

Even if this French law wouldn’t port over well to America, embracing more of its underlying rationale would serve us well. On that note, for sure, Vive la France.

Insurance coverage for online workplace bullying and harassment?

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When safety risks are such that the insurance industry is addressing them, then you know they are both costly and frequent. And so it is with cyberbullying, with at least one major insurer now moving to cover expenses resulting from electronic bullying and harassment.

Jim Finkle, in a piece for Reuters news service, reports that Chubb, one of the nation’s largest insurance companies, now offers a $70/year rider to its master family protection policy, providing $60,000 of coverage “for expenses resulting from ‘harassment and intimidation’ over personal computers, telephones or mobile devices.” Finkle adds:

Covered costs include psychiatric care, temporary relocation services, education expenses, public relations services and cyber security consulting.

The policy kicks in when cyber bullying results in wrongful termination, false arrest, wrongful discipline at a school or a diagnosis of debilitating shock, mental anguish or mental injury.

Right now, the policy rider is available in only four states — “Colorado, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin” — but the company is taking it nationwide.

Potential coverage for workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment

Although it’s likely that school-related bullying has figured most prominently in Chubb’s decision to offer this policy, the inclusion of wrongful termination and diagnoses of mental anguish or injury generally as triggering events indicates that electronic forms of workplace abuse are also covered.

Of course, this may lead to tricky questions under the policy, as bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work often mix face-to-face, behind-the-back, and online behaviors. Insurance companies are not generally known for generous interpretations of their own policies, so I can imagine some disputes arising over eligible and ineligible forms of workplace mistreatment.

Further evidence

This isn’t the first time that the insurance industry has started to grapple with workplace bullying. Five years ago, I reported that insurance companies are starting to include bullying-related legal disputes in their employment practice liability insurance policies for employers. This development was prompted by the likelihood of workplace anti-bullying legislation such as the Healthy Workplace Bill being enacted.

When it comes to understanding risk assessment, the insurance industry is among the leading indicators. This is all further evidence of growing public understanding about bullying behaviors and their effects on individuals and organizations.

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