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In the modern office, stress has become a default metric for judging whether we are busy enough.
In 2013, a Japanese news reporter named Miwa Sado died suddenly, soon after covering two consecutive elections. An investigation by government officials classified the tragedy as a case of karoshi, or death by overwork. Sado had clocked a hundred and fifty-nine hours of official overtime in the preceding month. When her body was found, she was still clutching her mobile phone. As the anthropologist James Suzman elaborates in his recent book, “Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time,” the story of Sado and the phenomenon of karoshi spotlight the dangers of a post-industrial economy in which both the work available and our ambitions have become effectively infinite. “Ever since some of our ancestors substituted their bows and digging sticks for plows and hoes, death by overwork has been a thing,” Suzman writes. But, as he elaborates, “what drove the likes of Miwa Sado to lose or take their lives was not the risk of hardship or poverty but their own ambitions refracted through the expectations of their employers.”
Mercifully, these extreme examples of overwork remain relatively rare. In 2013, Sado was one of only a hundred and thirty-three deaths in Japan officially attributed to karoshi. Even a single such case, of course, is too many, but, among the class of workers who have some autonomy over their workload, few seem to allow it to spiral completely out of control. Unfortunately, a leisurely approach to work seems just as scarce. A few years ago, a former editor of mine sent me a book manuscript that he thought I might enjoy, written by a corporate Web designer turned self-employed consultant named Paul Jarvis. The book was titled “Company of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business,” and Jarvis argued that, instead of trying to grow your business to produce more revenue, you should purposefully keep it small in order to reduce stress and increase leisure time. This idea presented such a striking countercultural contrast to the hustle-and-grow books that dominated the business-advice genre that I read it eagerly and offered a blurb for the book jacket.
Unlike Sado and Jarvis, most workers who are fortunate enough to exert some control over their efforts—such as knowledge workers and small-business entrepreneurs—tend to avoid working way too much, but also tend to avoid working a reasonable amount. They instead exist in a liminal zone: a place where they toil, say, for the sake of fixing a specific number, twenty per cent more than they really have time for. This extra twenty per cent provides just enough overload to generate persistent stress—there’s always something that’s late, always a message that can’t wait until the next morning, always a nagging sense of irresponsibility during any moment of downtime. Yet the work remains below a level of unsustainable pain that would force a change.
I’ve been thinking about this extra twenty per cent as part of my broader effort to understand the renegotiation with work that’s under way as we tumble toward post-pandemic normalcy. The ubiquity of overwork is a serious obstacle for many of the ideas about how we might reshape our professional lives in the months ahead. When we face more work than we can easily handle, the frictions of remote work intensify, increasing the chances that we’ll eventually just give up and return to the office full time. Similarly, adopting newly popular schemes such as a four-day workweek won’t provide the intended flexibility and mental relief when we pack in too many tasks for whatever number of hours we commit to cover. If we want our workplaces to become more productive and more humane, we’ll have to figure out how to circumvent the extra twenty per cent that we pile on ourselves.
Many of the recent takes on this overload problem adopt a classical Marxian conflict-theory perspective: if you’re working too much, it’s because the capitalists are exploiting your labor—either directly, through unreasonable demands, or indirectly, by propping up a culture that valorizes industriousness. Conflict theory identifies “revolution from below” as the solution to these degradations: beat back haranguing bosses through unionization and labor legislation; destabilize their coercive culture through art and polemic. These dynamics are certainly relevant to many parts of our economic activity (consider, for example, the ongoing fight to unionize Amazon warehouse workers), but, when it comes to semi-autonomous knowledge workers and entrepreneurs, the issue becomes murkier. Many of these overworked individuals don’t have a manager directly measuring their output and pressuring them to do more—and, far from embracing a culture that valorizes busyness, these workers tend to think of their freneticism as a weight that they desperately wish to shed; indeed, they are often frustrated by their inability to do so. Losing the comforting clarity of conflict theory is a problem: If we can’t point to bad actors causing our misery, where do we aim our urgent conviction to do something about it?
We might make more progress on understanding chronic busyness by turning to a satirical essay published in The Economist in 1955 by a British naval historian with the almost comically patrician name of Cyril Northcote Parkinson. This essay, which has become an underground classic among those who study work and productivity, is titled “Parkinson’s Law,” and it opens with a famous pronouncement: “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Parkinson supports this claim by discussing the growth of the British Admiralty between 1914 and 1928. During this postwar period, the number of capital ships and the sailors who manned them significantly decreased. What caught Parkinson’s attention was how, during this same period, the naval administrative bureaucracy significantly increased. Parkinson argues that this administrative apparatus, in the absence of strict directives about what work it should accomplish, became an independent, self-regulating system that began to grow for the sake of growing, unrelated to the actual organizational demands it served.
To emphasize his point about rampant bureaucratic growth, Parkinson provides a series of equations, of the type an ecologist might use to model the replication of a bacteria colony. The mathematical details of Parkinson’s Law are not important, as his precision was meant to be satirical. But embedded in this satire is an important truth: work systems, if left sufficiently autonomous, can evolve in ways independent of any rational plan. Once we accept this idea, our busyness problem becomes easier to grasp. The defining property of our contemporary professional settings, where everyone is working twenty per cent too much, is the autonomy given to individuals to decide what work to take on and what work to defer or decline.
If you’re a professor, or a mid-level executive, or a freelance consultant, you don’t have a supervisor handing you a detailed work order for the day. Instead, you’re likely bombarded with requests and questions and opportunities and invites that you try your best to triage. How do you decide when to say no? In the modern office context, stress has become a default heuristic. If you turn down a Zoom-meeting invitation, there’s a social-capital cost, as you’re causing some mild harm to a colleague and potentially signalling yourself to be uncoöperative or a loafer. But, if you feel sufficiently stressed about your workload, this cost might become acceptable: you feel confident that you are “busy,” and this provides psychological cover to skip the Zoom. The problem with the stress heuristic is that it doesn’t start reducing your workload until you already have too much to do. Like Parkinson’s naval bureaucracy, which expanded at a regular rate regardless of the size of the Navy, this stress-based self-regulation scheme insures that you remain moderately overloaded regardless of how much work is actually pressing.
The Parkinson-inspired explanation for overwork suggests an obvious general remedy: reduce the degree to which workloads are purely self-regulated. In an article for the MIT Sloan Management Review, from 2018, titled “Breaking Logjams in Knowledge Work,” the business scholars Sheila Dodge, Don Kieffer, and Nelson P. Repenning argue that office work should follow the lead of advanced industrial manufacturing and move the assignment of tasks from a push to a pull model. Most knowledge-work settings deploy a push paradigm: when you need something done, you push it onto someone else to accomplish—with an e-mail, or a request made during a meeting. As the authors note, this leaves overloaded individuals to make complicated prioritization decisions on their own, which in turn breeds disorganization. “When knowledge work processes are managed via push,” they write, “it’s difficult to track tasks in process because so many of them reside in individual email in-boxes, project files, and to-do lists.”
The alternative, they argue, is a pull approach. All of the tasks that may once have been scattered across dozens of individual in-boxes and to-do lists are now stored in a common place, such as a team task board, where the status and priority of each item can be made clear to all. When an individual finishes one of a set number of works in progress, they can turn to this board and pull in a new task to take its place. You fix the workload to a reasonable level and then try to get the most important things done within this limit. A pull-based workflow is perhaps more a thought experiment than a silver bullet; although it can work beautifully in some professional contexts, it might prove to be a terrible fit in others. The larger idea is that there are alternatives to the total autonomy that defines so much knowledge work at the moment, and these are alternatives that we should be exploring.
Our tendency to work twenty per cent too much is neither arbitrary nor sinister: it’s a side effect of the haphazard nature in which we allow our efforts to unfold. By thinking more intentionally about how work is identified, how it is prioritized, and how it is ultimately assigned, we can avoid some of the traps set by pure self-regulation. The pandemic has created a disruptive moment in which it’s possible to imagine work culture actually changing. But, as evidenced by the persistence of overload—and the ability, more generally, of undirected work systems to evolve in unexpected ways—we can’t redirect the future of work until we can control it in the present.
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