You’re probably familiar with books like David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs and Peter Fleming’s The Death of Homo Economicus, which talk about how in the modern economy, the problems of overwork and the declining meaningfulness of our jobs are connected.
A piece by designer Monica Mazzoli titled “Could a shorter work week be the end of work related stress?” recently introduced me to a Danish book in this vein: Anders Fogh Jensen and Dennis Nørmark’s Pseudoarbejde. Now, given American perceptions of the Scandinavian workplace, you might think that there’d be no market for such books in a country like Denmark, but it turns out there is.
In the book they ask themselves why we’re not working 15 hours a week like Keynes predicted? According to them, the explanation is both the traditional protestant work ethic (in which hard work is seen as a result of subscribing to the values of the protestant faith) and the fact that we build our identities around our work. In short, it’s cool to be busy.
As a result we end up fulfilling Parkinson’s law of work which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. And what does it expand with? Pseudo work, or empty labor, as Swedish sociologist Roland Paulsen calls it. This creates what Jensen and Nørmark calls “meaninglessness-stress”. Their suggested solution sound simple, but is extremely difficult to execute: we have to detach money from time. We have to remove ourselves from the idea that we have to spend a certain amount of time at work to really earn our salary.
In effect, this is a proposal to rethink the relationship between how much we work, and how meaningful that work is: to recognize that the two are not as closely connected as we often imagine; and to focus instead on… well, what?
In the companies I look at, there’s a shift– often slow and implicit; occasionally it’s an explicit goal– away from thinking that whoever works the most hours wins, and evaluating yourself in terms of how skilled and effective you are. Anyone can do a job working 60 hours; the people who are good at their jobs can do it in 40 hours; and the really skilled people are the ones who can do it in 30 hours.
So how can a shorter workweek help with the problem of bullshit jobs of “meaninglessness-stress?” Jensen and Nørmark argue:
the problem is not really how many hours we spend at work but rather that we have trouble seeing what our busyness is good for. People who work less, might be less stressed because they find meaning in spending more time with their families.
I would add one more thing: shorter workweeks don’t just give people more time for meaningful activities outside work, they can help make work more meaningful.
For many people, especially those who are further along in their careers, and have spent years working long hours, the challenge of figuring out how to turn it around and fit five days’ work into four also offers another level of meaning: because it forces you to improve your game in a way you haven’t had to previously.
It’s also valuable because the challenge of doing five day’s work in four isn’t just about being faster; it requires thinking deeply about how you work, how your work with others, how you manage your time and your subordinates, how you use technology, and figuring out how to be better at all of those.
We often assume that if we love our work, if it makes our lives more meaningful, then we should do more of it. Our professions, and certainly many of the companies we work for, love for us to think this. But we need to reimagine the relationship between the meaningfulness of work, and the time we spend working; recognize that it’s actually not a simple linear relationship; and see that if we take on the challenge of working less, we can often make work more meaningful and effective.