Should We All Just Stop Working So Hard?

"Work has intensified and increased over the years, which is what creates tension."
Malte Mueller via Getty Images

You’re reading Life-Work Balance, a series aiming to redirect our total devotion to work into prioritising our personal lives.

The work wisdom of going above and beyond in your 20s to set yourself up for success and comfort further down the line is currently very much up for debate.

In one camp is a band that advocates working your butt off in the early stages of your career so that you can relax later in life.

Others argue that this will only leave you burnt out and too exhausted to live your life to the fullest – after all, can you ever really recover from burnout?

How much of the week do you spend doing – and thinking about – work? Though the idea is that on any given day, we reserve eight hours for sleep, eight for work, and eight for leisure, few of us actually adhere to this – how can we?

Many of us begin our day by checking emails and bring work home in the evening, too. If you’re commuting, you might spend anything between one to four hours travelling. Now add in the time it takes to prepare for the day ahead, how often we stay past the five o’clock mark, and how common it is to shorten our lunch breaks to match our employers or deal with mounting workloads.

During the pandemic, the separation of our professional and personal hours and space has blurred even more. And despite our bills increasing like never before amid the cost of living crisis, our wages are stagnant.

We also have to regulate our emotions at work, often without guidance or training – if we’re angry, sad, upset or burnt out, these are feelings we need to navigate away in order to do our jobs.

Yet, we continue to toil for our employers, surrendering our physical and mental labour, with retirement moving further and further away from us.

And the thing is – work is actually getting harder. A 2021 government study found that work intensification has increased since the 1990s on almost all counts – with 46% of people saying they work “very hard”, 60% saying they work to tighter deadlines, and 45% said they work at “very high speed”.

Yes, the pandemic has meant many of us are working from home more, which can feel like you’re cheating the system if you take longer breaks or nap on the job – but the level of effort we’re all putting in is actually more intense.

Research from the Resolution Foundation think tank has also found that employee satisfaction is decreasing while work stressors are on the up.

So, should we all just stop working so hard? Francis Green, professor of work and education economics in UCL Institute of Education, researches work intensification and says it’s at the heart of many workplace issues.

“Work intensity has increased over the years,” he tells HuffPost UK. “Take school teachers, for example. We know that there’s been a problem of retention of school teachers in Britain’s state school system in the last 10 years.

“Actually, they don’t really work any more hours than they were back in the 1990s. But what they are doing is working much, much more intensively. In other professions too, work has intensified and increased over the years.”

This intensity is what creates tension and driving people to leave the profession, he adds. And we know it’s not just teaching – the Great Resignation has seem millions of people leave the UK workforce since the start of the pandemic.

Technology, once touted as our saviour, is making things worse, Prof. Green adds. Consider the easy availability of Slack, Zoom, Teams or a quick Whatsapp message. It means our bosses can access us at any time.

“Our work hours are starting to spread into other times of the day, through phones and other forms of digital technology,” he says. “And we’re expected to be ‘always on’, so you may be at home and you’re not really working but then you are because some email comes through from your boss and you feel obliged to respond to it and it’s 10 o’clock at night.

“You then have a blurred line between what’s work time and what isn’t work time. And that’s what threatens your work life balance.”

So, how do begin to work less intensely? After all, you don’t want to be fired, and you want to progress through your career, as well as accomplishing your tasks.

The answer lies in drawing boundaries, says Prof. Green. Are you overworking? Are you too available? Can you ask for small changes to your daily and weekly workflow that will increase the quality of your life – and by extension your work?

“For major issues, you should consult and consider joining a union,” he says. “For other things, you can talk to your bosses. This is not guaranteed to succeed as individual solutions don’t necessarily always work but it’s worth asserting your boundaries – telling bosses what you can and can’t do.”

Always be communicative, prepare to come with solutions, and ensure your work doesn’t suffer in the process. Familiarise yourself with your contract and your work rights, too. A good manager should listen.

Life-Work Balance questions the status quo of work culture, its mental and physical impacts, and radically reimagines how we can change it to work for us.