New Puritanism or New Skills?

You probably know someone similar. The hard-driving boss, up at 4am, checking emails even before getting out of bed, and later arriving home just in time to briefly see the kids before doing ‘a couple more hours’. He’s one of the voices in FT columnist Lucy Kellaway’s tragi-comic look at modern office life, ‘The Joy of 9-5‘, on BBC Radio 4.

The programme isn’t just about the high-flying corporate kamikazi in the corner office, though. Knowledge workers – the estimated 60% of the workforce focussed on tasks of cognitive complexity – are also slogging away harder and longer than ever in jobs that can make them feel stressed most, if not all, of the time. The number of people working more than 48 hours a week has risen recently to 3.4 million; a 15% rise since 2010, according to the TUC.

The programme links this kind of work style with health issues such as depression and early onset dementia towards the end of a career, but it also questions its value in the here-and-now. The longer you work, it argues, the less productive your work becomes, as you actually start spending more time cleaning-up the mistakes you make through tiredness and lack of focus. At the extremes, the 15 hours at the end of a 70 hour week are said to be utterly pointless.

Busyness has become an unhelpful and unhealthy badge of honour in a culture where the demands are ever-present and ever-increasing, but the programme tries to close on a more hopeful note talking of a ‘New Puritanism’ in which people have started to push back with strategies such as ignoring emails for up to a week.

But are these admirable ideas sustainable? Are they life-saving strategies or career-limiting moves for those lower down the organisational food chain? And do they even work when the work will just pile higher overnight or over the weekend?

Perhaps an alternative to buying a pointy hat and becoming a 16th Century Puritan is to develop some 21st century survival skills.