We Don't Need This Culture of Overwork

This year, we all need to become more like Utah,
under its Republican governor - and then go further. No, dear reader,
don't panic - I have not converted to Mormonism, nor have I tossed out
my sanity with my old Santa hat and Christmas decorations. The people
of one of the most conservative states in the US have stumbled across a
simple policy that slashes greenhouse gas emissions by 13 percent,
saves huge sums of money, improves public services, cuts traffic
congestion, and makes 82 per cent of workers happier.

This year, we all need to become more like Utah,
under its Republican governor - and then go further. No, dear reader,
don't panic - I have not converted to Mormonism, nor have I tossed out
my sanity with my old Santa hat and Christmas decorations. The people
of one of the most conservative states in the US have stumbled across a
simple policy that slashes greenhouse gas emissions by 13 percent,
saves huge sums of money, improves public services, cuts traffic
congestion, and makes 82 per cent of workers happier. It can do the
same for us - and point to an even better future beyond it - without
the need for the Arch-Angel Moron (yes, Mormons really do believe in
him) to offer his blessing.

It all began
two years ago, when the state was facing a budget crisis. One night,
the new Republican Governor Jon Huntsman was staring at the red ink and
rough sums when he had an idea. Keeping the state's buildings lit and
heated and manned cost a fortune. Could it be cut without cutting the
service given to the public? Then it hit him. What if, instead of
working 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, the state's employees only came in
four days a week, but now from 8 to 6? The state would be getting the
same forty hours a week out of its staff - but the costs of maintaining
their offices would plummet. The employees would get a three-day
weekend, and cut a whole day's worth of tiring, polluting commuting out
of their week.

He took the step of requiring
it by law for 80 per cent of the state's employees. (Obviously, some
places - like the emergency services or prisons - had to be exempted.)
At first, there was cautious support among the workforce but as the
experiment has rolled on, it has gathered remarkable acclaim. Today,
two years on, 82 per cent of employees applaud the new hours, and
hardly anyone wants to go back. Professor Lori Wadsworth carried out a
detailed study of workers' responses, and she says: "People love it."

A whole series of unexpected benefits started to
emerge. The number of sick days claimed by workers fell by 9 per cent.
Air pollution fell, since people were spending 20 per cent less time in
their cars. Some 17,000 tonnes of warming gases were kept out of the
atmosphere. They have a new slogan in Utah - Thank God It's Thursday.

But
wouldn't people be irritated that they couldn't contact their state
authorities on a Friday? Did the standard of service fall? It was a
real worry when the programme started. But before, people had to take
time off work to contact the authorities, since they were only open
during work hours. Now they were open for an hour before work and an
hour after it. It actually became easier to see them Monday to
Thursday: waiting times for state services have fallen.

Think
of it as the anti-Dolly Parton manifesto, puncturing her famous song:
"Workin' 9 to 5/ What a way to make a livin'/ Barely gettin' by/ Its
enough to drive you/ Crazy if you let it..." A queue of US cities and
corporations like General Motors are following suit, and Britain's
councils and companies should be sweeping in behind them. It's a
win-win-win - good for employees, good for employers and good for the
environment.

And once we started on this
course, it could spur us to think in more radical ways about work. If
this tiny little tinker with work routines leads to a big burst of
human happiness and environmental sanity, what could bigger changes
achieve?

Work is the activity that we spend
most of our waking lives engaged in - yet it is too often trapped in an
outdated routine. Today, very few of us work in factories, yet we have
clung to the habits of the factory with almost religious devotion.
Clock in, sit at your terminal, be seen to work, clock out. Is this the
best way to make us as productive and creative and happy as we can be?
Should we clamber into a steel box every morning to sit in a concrete
box all day?

Some of the best artworks of
recent years - Joshua Ferris' novel And Then We Came To The End, Ricky
Gervais' TV series The Office, Mike Judge's film Office Space - have
distilled the strange anomie of living like this, constantly monitored,
constantly sedentary, constantly staring at a screen. When I started
working from home, I suddenly found my productivity shot up: when I
stopped being seen to work just by sitting at a desk, I actually
knuckled down faster and with fewer distractions to work properly. In a
wired lap-topped world, far more people could work more effectively
from home, in hours of their own choosing, if only their bosses would
have confidence in them. They would be better workers, better parents
and better people - and we would take a huge number of cars off the
road.

But the problem runs deeper than this.
Britain now has the longest work hours in the developed world after the
US - and in a recession, those of us with jobs scamper ever faster in
our hamster-wheels. Yes, we now make the Japanese look chilled. This is
not how 2010 was meant to turn out. If you look at the economists and
thinkers of, say, the 1930s, they assumed that once we had achieved
abundance - once humans had all the food and clothes and heat and toys
we could use - we would relax and work less. They thought that by now
work would barely cover three days as we headed en masse for the beach
and the concert-hall.

Instead, the treadmill
is whirling ever-faster. This isn't our choice: virtually every study
of this issue finds that huge majorities of people say they want to
work less and spend more time with their friends, their families and
their thoughts. We know it's bad for us. Professor Cary Cooper, who has
studied to effects of overwork on the human body, says: "If you work
consistently long hours, more than 45 a week, every week, it will
damage your health, physically and psychologically." You become 37 per
cent more likely to suffer a stroke or heart-attack if you work 60
hours a week - yet one in six of all Brits are doing just that.

We
don't stop primarily because we are locked in an arms race with out
colleagues. If we relax and become more human, we fall behind the
person in the next booth down, who is chasing faster. Work can be one
of the richest and most rewarding experiences, but not like this. In a
recession, this insecurity only swells. Under Prime Minister Lionel
Jospin in the 1990s, the French discovered the most elegant way out of
this, taking the Utah experiment deeper and further. They insisted that
everyone work a maximum of 35 paid hours a week. It was a way of
saying: in a rich country, life is about more than serving corporations
and slogging. Wealth generation and consumerism should be our slaves,
not our masters: where they make us happy, we should embrace them;
where they make us miserable, we should cast them aside. Enjoy
yourself. True wealth lies not only in having enough, but in having the
time to enjoy everything and everyone around you.

It
was the equivalent to an arms treaty: we all stop, together, now, at
the 35 hour mark. The French population became fitter, their
relationships were less likely to break down, their children became
considerably happier, and voluntary organisations came back to life.
According to the national statistics agency Insee, the policy created
350,000 jobs, because so many people moved to job-shares to ensure
their post was filled five days a week. But under pressure from
corporations enraged that their staff couldn't be made to slog all the
time, Nicholas Sarkozy has abolished this extraordinary national
experiment. The French people were dismayed: the polls show a majority
still support the cap.

From the unlikely
pairing of Salt Lake City and Paris, a voice is calling. It is telling
us that if we leave our offices empty a little more, we can find a
happier, healthier alternative lying in the great free spaces beyond.