The idea that technology can liberate us from the drudgery of work is a powerful one. It has also been a powerful disappointment, at least so far. Many bemoan the fact that John Maynard Keynes thought we could all be working a 15-hour week by now. But it is not just about working hours. The nature of work also seems to have changed in the past three decades. In spite of — or perhaps because of — new technology, people now say they are working harder to tighter deadlines under greater levels of tension.
The best evidence for this comes from the UK, where large government-funded surveys conducted every five years show rising “work intensification” since the 1990s. The proportion of employees who “strongly agree” their job requires that they work “very hard” increased from 30 per cent in 1992 to 46 per cent in 2017. The share who say they work to “tight deadlines” for at least three quarters of the time has increased from 53 per cent to 60 per cent. And the share who say they work at “very high speed” for at least three quarters of the time has swelled from 23 per cent to 45 per cent.
What is striking about this trend is that it’s happening to everyone. “It’s not just the Amazon production line person who’s had their work intensified, it’s the London commuter and the new solicitor,” says Francis Green, a professor at UCL who has studied the phenomenon for years. According to an analysis by the Resolution Foundation think-tank, just over two-thirds of employees in the top quarter of the pay ladder said they worked “under a great deal of tension” in 2017. The same was true for half of those in the bottom quarter for pay, but this latter group has experienced the biggest increase in tension since the 1990s. Studies have found work intensification among managers, nurses, aerospace workers, meat processing workers, schoolteachers, IT staff and carers. There is also evidence of work intensification in Europe and the US.
What’s going on? In the 1990s, people said their “own discretion” was the most important factor in how hard they worked. Now they are more likely to cite “clients or customers.” In a world of instant communication, many workers now feel they have to respond quickly to consumer or client demands. That goes for the banker working on a big merger as well as the Uber Eats driver he summons to bring him a burger. In the newspaper industry, we publish important breaking news online as soon as we can. I sometimes think wistfully about our pre-internet predecessors who only had to worry about the print deadline.
Another possible explanation is that employers have simply cut headcount to save costs without coming up with more efficient ways of doing things. This will no doubt resonate with UK public sector workers who experienced a decade of government spending cuts after the financial crisis.
Some companies have also harnessed technology to extract more effort from staff. More workplaces like warehouses have become partially automated, which means workers must keep pace with machines. Other workers are now easier to monitor. Witness the growth of software which tracks employees’ keystrokes, measures their breaks and sends nudges if they stray on to non-work related sites.
A fourth possibility is that email and instant messaging platforms like Slack simply tire people out mentally. It is hard to focus when constantly interrupted, which might leave workers feeling as if they are working hard and fast even if they aren’t getting much done.
This raises the key question of productivity. It is not necessarily a bad thing for people to work harder if they had some spare capacity before. After all, higher productivity should lead to better living standards. But work intensification in the UK has coincided with poor productivity growth in the past decade. And while working harder doesn’t seem to be making us richer, it does appear to be making us sicker. A new study by academics Tom Hunt and Harry Pickard suggests that “working with high intensity” increases the likelihood of people reporting stress, depression and burnout. They are also more likely to work when sick. Data from the UK Health and Safety Executive shows that the proportion of people suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety was rising even before the pandemic hit.
What can be done? It would be tricky to wind back the various factors that have combined to intensify work. In the absence of simple policy solutions, it is easy to see why the campaign for a four-day week has gained momentum, with a trial beginning in UK workplaces this week. If we can’t work less hard, perhaps we should just work less.