Could Long Covid lead to the rise of a four-day workweek? | Greg Frey
Alongside being constantly exhausted, in pain and out of breath, one of the hardest things about having long Covid is finding self-esteem outside of the world of work. I am one of almost 2 million people in the UK and 20 million in the US who are currently facing this challenge. It’s one that other people with disabilities know well: our culture glorifies hard work, often to the detriment of health. Remember all those dreams of change we had at the start of the pandemic? Now I wonder: Could the long tail of Covid-19 usher in a deeper shift away from our work-obsessed culture?
The time has come for one. Before the pandemic, we were already working too long and too hard. British workers, for example, work two and a half weeks longer a year than the average European, and half of our absences from work are caused by stress, anxiety or depression. Meanwhile, in the United States, workers are spending four overtime hours a week at work, with three-quarters of workers experiencing significant job stress.
I see it clearly in my friends in their early twenties, who have to choose between tedious but self-preserving service work and more “creative” jobs that consume their lives. Many of them, struggling with anxiety and depression, will base how good they feel today on their “productivity.” Pleasure has become guilty; rest, a moment of failure; and burnout, an almost inevitable stage.
How did we come here? Some – of which the theorist Max Weber is the most famous – date back to the rise of Protestantism in the 16th century. Others evoke the 20th century propaganda campaigns that followed each of the world wars, recasting work as a patriotic duty. More recently, the ‘profit scrounger’ discourse of the 2010s and Uber’s entrepreneurial economy have tightened the shackles. Wherever it comes from, the cult of work dominates our lives.
We could do an anti-work propaganda campaign. There would be infinite material for one. As long as no one takes a pay cut, a reduction in working hours would make life better in every way. A recent study showed that reducing one day of the working week could reduce carbon emissions by 30%. A four-day week would also improve gender inequality, redistributing the 60% more unpaid work women do than men. On top of all that, a series of high-profile trials at Microsoft, Deloitte, and Kickstarter show that working less increases the efficiency of the work we do overall.
And none of this begins to cover the side effects: imagine the ease of our healthcare system as a result of a decline in stress-related illnesses, the flourishing of local democracy as people have more time to participate , the great art that people could make, technological progress breakthroughs…
Beyond my own experience, Covid-19 has made this a real problem for all of us. In addition to working from home, the number of companies offering a four-day week has increased by 15% since the start of the pandemic. A recent survey found that almost 60% of the UK public support a four-day week, and other polls show an increase in the number of managers supporting the idea. Earlier this month, 4 Day Week Global and think tank Autonomy launched a new trial where 3,000 people at 70 companies will adopt a four-day week.
It’s exciting, but it won’t be enough on its own. Our work ethic runs deep and, historically, reduced working hours have only been hard won by unions and social movements. While the many trials of four-day weeks are helpful, blue-collar workers are underrepresented in them. It is also highly likely that some will see workers with more free time as a threat. (I always remember John E Edgerton, president of the National Association of Manufacturers of the United States, quoted in 1920, saying: “Nothing breeds radicalism more than misfortune unless it be leisure .”) Right now, unions are the only thing that cuts the working hours of working-class people today. The victory of the Communications Workers Union in 2018 for postal workers in Britain and IG Metall for engineering workers in Germany are two recent examples.
Now, in this turbulent time for the UK and US trade union movement, with historic organizing moves at Amazon and Starbucks, and with what is being called a ‘summer of discontent’ in the UK, will we be able to significantly affect not only the rewards of work, but the necessity of work itself?
If the unions persisted in demanding shorter working weeks, they would keep pace with the young people leading the broader cultural movement. At the height of the pandemic, in a period called the Great Resignation, more young people were quitting their jobs in the United States than they had in decades. The hashtag #QuitTok and 44,000 videos made on TikTok with the sound clip “I have no dream job. I don’t dream of a job,” the mass disillusionment suggests, as do the 1.7 million members of the r/antiwork Reddit thread.
Journalist Rosie Spinks argues convincingly that, culturally, we are moving away from the entrepreneurial, walking personal brands of the 2000s, back to the 90s affection for the persona of the “slacker”: “guys and employees, the stick-it-to-man, the burnouts of staying true to yourself.” I breathe a sigh of relief that something may be replacing the ideal of influencer, gig work and the hustler I grew up with. It’s surprising how much we’ve internalized that pattern.
For me, the long Covid, which I have had since the beginning of this year, has highlighted this. Illness demands rest. Not just a day or two in bed, but months and months of rest. Overwork can leave you too exhausted from the most basic things; no television, no leaving home, no conversation longer than 10 minutes. Even though I know the disease well now, I still often lack rest. It’s partly normal restlessness, but it’s also the entrenched ideal of relentless grafting as the only true source of success, value, and purpose.
One thing I’ve learned is that – while we wait for the collective action we need, from unions, movements and government – small changes can help now. We can all give ourselves permission to slow down and rest. We can all question our own inner urges to occupy ourselves. And, in the space we are creating, new questions to measure success may emerge. Instead of “How productive was I today?” we might start asking something like “How much did I give away today?” », « How much care did I take? or “How supportive have I been to others?”