Could a shorter work week be the end of work related stress?


Can we cut down stress by just working less?

In western culture, hard work is traditionally seen as something of a moral duty — we’ve been told that “idleness is the root of all evil”. But is this true? As early as the 1930s this claim was challenged by the two British thinkers economist John Keynes and philosopher Bertrand Russell.
 They both argued for the benefits of working less, and spending more time with family and loved ones, playing sports, studying or doing charity work. Keynes even predicted that in the 21st century the average work week would be merely fifteen hours[1].

What do the numbers say?

Today, almost 100 years later, Keyes predictions have not come true. And even in Denmark (one of the happiest nations in the world![2]) work related stress is a big issue. It is estimated that 1400 deaths are caused every year by work related stress in Denmark alone. Besides from costing the state a lot of money every year[3], it makes people miserable and greatly impacts people’s lives in a negative way. Everyone who has experienced stress, either their own or that of a loved one, knows that this is not something to be taken lightly.

A study from 2005, the Kelly World at Work-study, suggests that long work weeks and stress could be related. In this study only 8% of people working less than 30 hours a week reported feeling “very stressed”, whereas the number for those working 51 hours or more a week hit 32%[4]
 The country with the lowest rate of work related stress was the Netherlands (16%), a country where people on average work 29 hours a week[5].

Paradoxically, people with long work hours are not the most stressed in Denmark. They are by far surpassed by the unemployed. Currently a staggering 47% (!) of unemployed Danes are struggling with very high stress levels, a number that’s increased by 7% in just the last five years[6].

So, on the surface the solution seems to be finding a healthy balance between not working at all and working too much. But is really that simple? When diving into the deeper layers of this discussion, other aspects than just hours spent at the workplace come to light.

Is our work pseudo?

In recent years we’ve seen a flourishing in discussions topics related to the writings of Keynes and Russell almost a hundred years ago, while political parties across Europe are advocating for the 30 hour standard work week.

The most recent input to the discussion here in Denmark comes from philosopher Anders Fogh Jensen and anthropologist Dennis Nørmark, who just had their book “Pseudoarbejde” (pseudo work) published. 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 Parkinsons 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. And according to the two writers, this change in mentality could very well lead to the situation predicted by Keynes: a fifteen-hour work week[7].

So maybe, 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. While unemployed people might find meaning lacking all together, which could lead to stress and also other ailments like depression or anxiety. This is not something the numbers can tell us, rather that it might be an idea to spend a little less time in the office.

Here at bob we can’t make your work week shorter, but we can provide some tools to help give you a tiny mental break during the work day. Tools for building better habits and making it easier to cope with the everyday pressures of life.

Sign up here and get the app for free.

[1] Keyes: ”Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”