Alongside being constantly exhausted, in pain and out of breath, one of the hardest things about having long Covid is finding self-worth outside the world of work. I’m one of nearly 2 million people in the UK and 20 million in the US now facing this challenge. It’s one that other disabled people know well: our culture glorifies work, often at the expense of health. Remember all those dreams of change we entertained at the start of the pandemic? Now I’m wondering: could Covid-19’s long tail usher in a deeper shift away from our work-obsessed culture?
The time is right for one. Before the pandemic, we had already been working too long and too hard. British workers, for example, put in two and a half weeks more work per year than the average European, and half of our workplace absences are caused by stress, anxiety or depression. Meanwhile in the US, workers spend an extra four hours a week at work, with three-quarters of workers experiencing significant workplace stress.
I see it clearly in my friends in their early 20s, having to choose between tedious but self-preserving service work and more “creative” jobs that consume their lives. So many of them, struggling with anxiety and depression, will base how good they feel about themselves today on how “productive” they have been. Pleasure has become guilty; rest, a moment of failure; and burnout, an almost inevitable milestone.
How did we get here? Some – most famously the theorist Max Weber – trace it all the way back to the rise of Protestantism in the 16th century. Others point to the 20th-century propaganda campaigns that followed each of the world wars, recasting work as a patriotic duty. More recently, the “benefit scrounger” discourse of the 2010s and the entrepreneurial Uber economy have tightened the chains. Wherever it comes from, the cult of work dominates our lives.
We could do with an anti-work propaganda campaign. There would be endless material for one. As long as no one suffered a pay cut, a reduction in working hours would improve life all-round. A recent study showed that reducing the working week by one day could cut carbon emissions by 30%. A four-day week would also ameliorate gender inequalities, redistributing the 60% more unpaid work women do compared with men. On top of all of that, a series of high-profile trials at Microsoft, Deloitte and Kickstarter show working less increases the effectiveness of the work that we do overall.
And none of this begins to cover the secondary effects: imagine the ease on our healthcare system from a drop in stress-related illness, the flourishing of local democracy as people have more time to participate, the great art that people might make, the technological breakthroughs …
Beyond my own experience, Covid-19 has made this a live issue for us all. As well as working from home, there has been a 15% rise in companies offering a four-day week since the pandemic began. A recent survey found that nearly 60% of the British public support a four-day week, and other polling shows an increase in managers warming to the idea. Earlier this month, the 4 Day Week Global and the thinktank Autonomy launched a new trial where 3,000 people across 70 companies will adopt a four-day week.
This is exciting, but it won’t be enough by itself. Our work ethic runs deep, and, historically, reduced working time has only ever been hard-won by trade unions and social movements. While the many trials of four-day weeks are useful, blue-collar workers are underrepresented in them. It is also highly likely that some will see workers having more free time as a threat. (I always remember John E Edgerton, president of the US National Association of Manufacturers, quoted in 1920, saying “Nothing breeds radicalism more than unhappiness unless it is leisure.”) At the moment, unions are the only thing shrinking the working hours of working-class people today. The Communications Workers Union’s 2018 victory for postal workers in Britain, and IG Metall for engineering workers in Germany, are two recent examples.
Now, in this lively time for the British and American trade union movement, with historic unionisation movements at Amazon and Starbucks, and with what’s being called a “summer of discontent” in the UK, will we be able to meaningfully affect not just the rewards of work, but the necessity of work itself?
If unions do tack to demanding shorter working weeks, they would be keeping up with the young people leading the wider cultural movement. During the height of the pandemic, in a period termed the Great Resignation, more young people were quitting work in the US than they had for decades. The hashtag #QuitTok and 44,000 videos made on TikTok with the sound clip, “I have no dream job. I do not dream of labour”, suggest mass disillusion, as do the 1.7 million members of the r/antiwork Reddit thread.
Journalist Rosie Spinks argues convincingly that culturally we are swinging away from the entrepreneurial, walking personal brands of the 2000s, back around to the 90s affection for the character of the “slacker”: “the dudes and the clerks, the stick-it-to-the-man, stay-true-to-yourself burnouts”. I breathe a sigh of relief that something is possibly replacing the influencer, gig-working, hustler ideal I have grown up with. It’s startling to realise just how far we have internalised that model.
For me, long Covid, which I have had since the start of this year, has brought this into stark relief. The illness demands rest. Not just a day or two in bed, but months and months of rest. Overexertion can leave you too exhausted to the most basic things; no television, no leaving the house, no conversations longer than 10 minutes. Even though I know the illness well by now, I still often fail to rest enough. This is partly a normal restlessness, but it is also the baked-in ideal of hard graft as the only real source of success, value and purpose.
One thing I have learned is that – while we wait for the collective action we need, from unions, movements and government – small shifts can help now. We can all give one another permission to slow down and rest. We can all interrogate our own inner urges to keep busy. And, in the space we create, new questions to measure success might emerge. Instead of “How productive have I been today?” we might start to ask something more like “How much have I given freely today?”, “How much care have I taken?” or “How supportive of others have I been?”