Hard work is all the rage these days. Tony Blair famously extolled ‘hard working families’, while the slogan of last year’s Conservative Party conference was ‘for hardworking people.’

But what is this ‘hard work’ of which our politicians speak? Do they in fact, just mean ‘work’ – as in an honest day’s work? If not, then what do they think makes hard work hard?

I doubt they mean the physical effort of hard labour, because this is something that most of them don’t know much about. Nor, I suspect, do they mean hard as in something you find difficult because you’re not very good at it. So that leaves one possibility – hard work as in overwork.

In the New Yorker, James Surowiecki has a brilliant column on the long hours culture in the banking sector and other knowledge-intensive professions. What’s particularly interesting is that this is a relatively recent phenomenon – even in America:

“Thirty years ago, the best-paid workers in the U.S. were much less likely to work long days than low-paid workers were. By 2006, the best paid were twice as likely to work long hours as the poorly paid, and the trend seems to be accelerating. A 2008 Harvard Business School survey of a thousand professionals found that ninety-four per cent worked fifty hours or more a week, and almost half worked in excess of sixty-five hours a week. Overwork has become a credential of prosperity.”

Some on Wall Street are beginning to question whether working every waking hour (and skimping on the sleeping ones) is such a good idea:

“Last October, Goldman Sachs told its junior investment-banking analysts not to work on Saturdays, and it has said that all analysts, on average, should be working no more than seventy to seventy-five hours a week. A couple of weeks ago, Bank of America Merrill Lynch said that analysts are expected to have four weekend days off a month. And, last week, Credit Suisse told its analysts that they should not be in the office on Saturdays.”

It should be said that these banks aren’t just acting out of the goodness of their hearts:

“The perplexing thing about the cult of overwork is that, as we’ve known for a while, long hours diminish both productivity and quality. Among industrial workers, overtime raises the rate of mistakes and safety mishaps; likewise, for knowledge workers fatigue and sleep-deprivation make it hard to perform at a high cognitive level.”

The effects on overworked employees include “depression, anxiety, and immune-system problems and declines in “creativity and judgment.”

I don’t have any proof of a direct causal link, but it’s worth noting that the rise in the long hours culture among knowledge workers coincides with a long-term decline in rates of innovation and economic growth. A link wouldn’t be surprising: people that aren’t given time for sufficient rest and recreation also don’t have time to think – instead they just put all that extra effort into ploughing the same furrow. Moreover, given the actions that contributed to the near collapse of international banking system, one has to ask whether a well-rested workforce would have taken quite so many reckless decisions.

Much the same could be said for our politicians. Despite what you might think about ‘lazy MPs’ – most of them, especially Ministers, work well over sixty hours a week. Not that this cuts much ice with the public. Indeed a cheap round of applause can be had by calling on MPs with constituencies close-ish to London to add a daily commute to their schedules.

Well fine – no one has to do the job, do they? Then again, don’t complain if we end up governed by a bunch of weirdos too tired to think straight.

24 comments for: Heresy of the week: Hard work is nothing to celebrate

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