Too much work is bad for the planet

Mike Phipps reviews Overtime: Why We Need a Shorter Working Week, by Will Stronge and Kyle Lewis, published by Verso.

Too much work is bad for you.  It’s estimated that long working hours lead to 745,000 deaths worldwide annually, according to the World Health Organisation. Women, who disproportionately bear the responsibility of care and child-rearing, are particularly hit by the long hours increasingly demanded in the world of paid work.  And in Britain, an estimated two-thirds of NHS workers are overworked.

“The UK government’s Health and Safety Executive reports that a record 17.9 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2019/20,” note the authors of this useful new book. “This compares to 12.8 million in the previous year; a 40 per cent increase in cases. What was the predominant cause of these illnesses? Workload pressure, or more specifically ‘tight deadlines, too much work or too much pressure’.”

And this was before the pandemic, which has seen mental distress at work rise by 49% when compared to the 2017/2019 period. “A study carried out by the Mental Health Foundation suggested that among those working from home during the pandemic, an extra 28 hours per month were being worked on average, with clear negative impacts on health and well-being.”

Additionally, a recent study on the Covid pandemic found that found that 77% of the workforce who have ‘high-risk’ jobs are women, and that women make up 98% of workers in high-risk jobs that are being paid poverty wages.

The erosion of the work-life barrier not only increases exploitation – it is an obstacle to creativity and the development of human potential.

It’s also bad for the environment. The fight against overwork is intrinsic to an economic transition that abandons Gross Domestic Product as a measure of economic success in favour of a range of social and environmental metrics.

Working less not only reduces the amount of resources used up in the labour process: it also reduces the amount of carbon-intensive consumption that comes with the ‘work and spend’ cycle – long hours mean more takeaway meals delivered by motorbike, for example. One study estimated that reducing our working hours by a quarter could reduce our carbon footprint by as much as 30%.

Recently, a study by the environmental organisation Platform London and the 4 Day Week Campaign found a four-day working week would shrink the UK’s emissions by 127m tonnes, a reduction of more than 20% and equivalent to taking the country’s entire private car fleet off the road.

The move towards a shorter workweek is popular and is being pushed by diverse movements. When the Trades Union Congress polled thousands of UK workers in 2018, over three-quarters wanted to work four days or fewer.

The Communication Workers Union recently won a campaign to secure a four-day week for postal workers who have had significant parts of their work replaced by machines. At the 2019 Labour Party Conference, the then Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell MP announced a policy of transitioning to a thirty-two-hour working week over the course of a decade, although whether this initiative will survive Labour’s ‘new management’ is more doubtful. Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves should note, however, that in surveys, 57% of Conservative and 70% of Labour voters were found to be in favour of a four day working week.

Once again, the left has the popular policies that can change society for the better. The task now is to build a coalition of support to change the balance of forces and bring these ideas to fruition.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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