Friday, 25 January 2019

Davos: why measures of economic progress must consider the quality of work on offer

Davos offers a place for the rich and not-so-famous to meet and exchange views on the present and future of capitalism. As in previous years, the theme of automation and the “fourth industrial revolution” has been a core of the 2019 meeting. The concern is over how technology might help to raise economic growth and add to prosperity.

Lip service, of course, is paid to wider social and ethical goals, but in truth the central concern is with the needs of the global economy. The worship of growth (measured by GDP) dominates proceedings.

But this focus diverts attention from what are pressing problems in society. In particular, it misses the costs of work. Far from the ski slopes of Davos are real people struggling in dull jobs and on stagnant incomes. Any consideration of how technology will destroy or create jobs needs to recognise that the quality of the work we do is also important.

The fourth industrial revolution includes the rise of artificial intelligence, 3D printers and driverless cars. While many fear the disappearance of jobs due to digital automation, debate at Davos recognises the capacity for technology to create new jobs. It will present new sources of demand and new work opportunities such as engineers to design and service the new digital architecture.

Yet, the prospect of jobs growth is itself a problem if it means workers working in more low quality jobs. If technology erodes the skill content of work, drives down wages, and raises the duration and intensity of work, then workers may face the prospect of having to undertake work that is much worse than now.

Work realities

The rise of the so-called “gig economy” shows the darker side of technological innovation. Advanced economies have seen a steady decline in skilled manufacturing jobs and the growth of low-skilled zero-hours contracts jobs in their place. Meanwhile, the output of large corporations continues to grow, showing how technology can be harnessed for profit-making, at the expense of the welfare of workers.

The hard realities of work in modern society speak to the limits of visions of progressive change via automation. They highlight, in particular, how technology may add to the problems of work, while sustaining people in work.

The focus on economic growth, as measured by GDP, does not help here. Consider an economy where GDP is rising. Growth may be fuelled by rising employment, higher work force participation, and/or longer work hours. But this fails to consider the costs of the work involved. The fact that GDP may depend on a substantial number of workers being exposed to toxic conditions at work is obscured. And the process of generating GDP growth often has an environmental impact, including more pollution and waste.

Automation as distraction

At Davos and other forums, it is convenient for big business to focus on the topic of automation. It creates, on the one hand, a sense of fear about the future of work. This fear is useful for capital owners because it helps to suppress wages and reduce demands for better work, as people become just so grateful to have a job at all.

The focus on automation, on the other hand, helps to win support for the status quo. Capitalism, so the story goes, is not to blame for the ills of work, but rather these ills stem from the seemingly natural processes of technological change. Technology, in this way, becomes a useful mechanism to hide the specific injustices of work linked to existing corporate structures and practices.

Davos promotes the fourth industrial revolution slogan, in part because it reflects the interests of the class that it represents.

In our society, technology does not guarantee – as it should – more leisure time and more meaningful work; rather it offers more work and, for many, greater drudgery. Paradoxically, the prospect is of work continuing, while technology advances.

The reason for this paradox relates at an essential level to unequal power. It reflects who owns and controls technology – how powerful capital owners can use it in the service of profit generation. The discussion at Davos about technological change remains closed to voices demanding real change. Yet it is only by reimagining technology – its ownership and control – that we can create a better automated future.

Meanwhile, concerns about sustaining economic prosperity must incorporate measures of the quality of work available to people. Beyond growth, we need to embrace measures of progress that capture how well work fits us as human beings. Some useful attempts to define the quality of work exist. The challenge is to use these in conjunction with other measures such as GDP to come up with broader indicators of economic and social progress. That way, we might realise ways of working and living that are to the benefit of all.

*** This blog was originally post at the Conversation

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Stop working on your commute – it doesn’t benefit anyone

Our journey to and from the office has been taken over by work. Rather than reading a book, catching up with the news, or just relaxing, our commute time is now increasingly spent reading and replying to work-related emails. The transport we use to get to and from our jobs has become another venue for work.

The sad thing is that we consent to this extra work, despite it not being remunerated. Hours spent commuting are unpaid – they add nothing to our bank balances, though they save our employers the expense of higher wages.

The extension of work into commute time reflects the presence of an intrusive and pernicious “always-on” culture. It reflects an environment where we are enslaved to work, even when not physically in the office. Our busyness, however, can only come at the expense of the quality of our lives and our health. We must fight to resist it.

Work-life imbalance

Research shows how workers fit work into commute time, in part, to ease the burden of work. Answering emails on route to work can help to save time once you’re at work. Equally email can be answered on the way home from work to ease the pressure of work during the next working day. Work can also be done on the move that could not be finished at work.

But here “savings” of time and effort are likely to be illusory. Employers are not going to cut email traffic just because workers are replying to emails on the way to and from work. To the contrary the incentive is for employers to encourage email traffic outside of regular hours in order to exploit the free work of workers.

Work “saved” during commute time, in this case, may translate into more work during paid work time. Workers again may be in the position of doing more work, for no extra pay. Out-of-hours working implies that work cannot be fitted into paid hours. It suggests that workers are overworked (and underpaid) for the work they do.

Always-on culture

New technology enables us to connect with our work, beyond normal hours. Laptops and iPhones mean we have instant access to our work and workplaces. Wifi on trains and buses has helped to turn commuting into work time. But technology itself does not explain why work is performed outside of regular hours. For that we need to look at organisational culture.

Organisations increasingly demand that their employees give their bodies and lives to work. Staying late at work is a badge of honour. Presenteeism – the act of being present at work for longer than is required – is rife in workplaces and reflects on the culture of overwork that is endemic in modern society.

Working during commute time is simply an extension of the same culture. It demonstrates the way work has taken over our lives. We find time to work even when not at work because we are exposed to a culture that venerates hard work.

Few benefits

Yet, all this extra work seems to bring few economic benefits. Productivity remains low in the UK despite workers working all hours. Commuters are no more productive for answering emails on the go. Indeed productivity is likely to be lower due to the stressed out and exhausting nature of long commute and work schedules.

Research continues to show the negative health effects of long hours of work. By working more we suffer ill-health, physical as well as mental. We also neglect our families, friends and communities. And we lose the ability to think and act beyond the roles we fill as workers.

Work may now be a normal part of commuting time but its performance imposes high costs on us and society more generally. In a rational world, we would move to ban out-of-hours email, not just to protect free time, but also to safeguard health. Beyond this we would look to challenge the hegemony of work and promote ways of living that are less work-centred. Cutting work hours would be the only sane way of restoring any semblance of balance between jobs and life.

*** This article was originally posted at the Conversation

Thursday, 3 May 2018

The need to work less is a matter of life and death

The May bank holiday is intimately linked to labour history and to struggles over time spent at work. In the US, May Day has its origins in the fight for an eight-hour work day at the end of the 19th century. This fight was – and remains – a quest for a broader ideal, namely the achievement of a life beyond work.

Yet, on this May bank holiday, we are struck by the lack of progress towards this ideal. Work has not diminished in society. Rather, it has continued to dominate our lives, often in ways that are detrimental to our health and well-being. Many US workers have found themselves working more than eight hours a day – the dream of working less promoted by their forebears has turned into a nightmare of long hours of work, for no extra pay. UK workers have not fared much better, at least in recent years, facing lower real pay for the same or longer hours of work.

The irony of course is that capitalism was supposed to offer something different. It was meant to offer a life of more leisure and free time. Technology was supposed to advance in ways that would bring bank holidays every month, possibly even every week. Luminaries like economist John Maynard Keynes dreamt of a 15-hour work week by 2030. Yet capitalism has produced the exact opposite. Its effect has been to preserve and extend work. It has also created problems in the content and meaning of work.

The circumstances are such that rather than idle away and enjoy our time off on bank holidays we are likely to spend it exhausted, stressed, and annoyed about a world that is less than what it can be.

Work’s not working

As an example of the problem of modern work, consider a recent report from the industry group, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). It showed how increasing numbers of workers are turning up for work while ill. They are displaying what is termed “presenteeism”. Of the more than 1,000 organisations that were surveyed, 86% reported workers attending work while ill. This number was up from 26% in 2010, when the survey was last undertaken.

The CIPD also found high numbers of workers prepared to work while on holiday. Work, it seems, extends to time when workers are neither paid nor physically at work.

One reason for this behaviour is the pervasive work ethic. The idea of work remains strong and prevents any hint of slacking off. The work ethic can reflect – in the case of some middle-class jobs – high intrinsic rewards, but it also reflects on societal norms and imperatives that privilege and sanctify work. Needless to say, these norms and imperatives suit the material interests of employers.

Another reason for workers’ commitment to work is the pressure of financial necessity. Stagnant and falling real wages mean workers have to keep working in order to live. Keynes’s dream of a 15-hour work week by 2030 assumed benevolent employers passing on the productivity gains made from technology in the form of shorter work hours. It did not contemplate a world where employers would pocket the gains for themselves, at the expense of more work for workers.

The demand of employers that we work more has been intensified by changes in technology that have bound us to work. Smartphones mean instant access to email and offer a constant connection to work. Being on call when not at work is part of the modern work culture.

There is also a direct power aspect in the sense that work now is often precarious and insecure. People dare not show a lack of commitment for fear of losing their jobs. How better to show commitment than to attend work while ill and work during holidays?

The modern phenomenon of presenteeism is a pathology linked to a workplace setting where workers lack control. It reflects a situation that is imposed rather than chosen and one that is operated against employees’ interests.

Killing time at work

Yet all the evidence is that long hours are bad for health and ultimately productivity. Workers working long hours are more likely to have a heart attack, suffer a stroke, and experience depression. Coming to work ill is also likely to make you feel more ill. And could make others around you ill.

Recent research from the US suggests that toxic workplaces (excessive hours, stressful work regimes) are a public health disaster. These workplaces have been shown to shorten lives – they are literally killing workers.

The alternative is for employers to reorganise work. Evidence suggests shorter work hours can boost health and productivity, providing potential win-win outcomes for employers and workers.

Given such evidence, why do employers keep pushing workers to work more? The simple answer relates to the capitalist system itself. The imperative for profit translates into a drive to work more. Technology, for similar reasons, becomes a tool for control and for pumping out more work.

While employers may benefit from less work, they work within a system that prevents this goal. Working less is inimical to a system where profit matters more than the pursuit of well-being in and beyond work. Deaths through overwork are a necessary by-product.

The May Day bank holiday ought to be a time for celebration, a recognition of how far we have come as a society in reducing work. Instead, it brings into sharp relief a world not won – a world lost to a system that privileges profit over people.

If we want a better future, we need to continue the collective struggle for less work. Our lives may depend on it.

*** This article is also published at the Conversation

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Confronting the power of finance: towards definancialisation

The tenth anniversary of the global financial crisis (GFC) should have been a time to reflect on the successes made in economic policy. It should have been a time to celebrate the progress made in building a more robust economic system that delivers benefits to the greater part of society.

Yet, ten years on, many of the same fragilities and inequities remain as before the GFC. The conditions for sustainable economic growth have continued to elude policy makers – indeed new tensions (e.g. low productivity and sluggish wage growth) have emerged, suggesting that lessons have not been learned from the past.

In the UK at least, economic growth remains reliant on consumer spending (and borrowing). Policies to revive investment and trade have largely failed and the UK economy remains, as in the past, unbalanced and unequal in its outcomes. The fall in real pay since the GFC is a stand out feature of the UK economy and highlights how the recovery in GDP has coincided with deepening hardship for many.

The problems of the UK, like those in some other countries, reflect on deeper issues relating to the dominance of a particular economic ideology. This ideology entails faith in the necessity of austerity, resists an active industrial policy, and gives autonomy to financial interests in the running of firms. The ideology is consistent with a ‘financialised capitalism’ that eschews higher investment and lower inequality in favour of higher shareholder returns and soaring incomes for the few. It is an ideology that ultimately results in more uneven growth and frequent crises.

If, as argued below, the many in society are to prosper in the future, our focus should be on de-financialising the economy.


The notion of ‘financialisation’ has developed out of heterodox economics and political economy. It captures the spectacular rise of financial activities, financial markets, and financial interests within economy, society, and culture. Financialisation has been a secular and global process over the past thirty years or so, recently encompassing the GFC and ensuing period of austerity in capitalist societies. It has though been highly variegated being more evident in certain countries (e.g. the UK and the US) than others and its nature and extent has reflected on the institutional environment within individual countries.

The sources of financialisation rest with shifts in policy and politics. Policies of deregulation and privatisation, implemented by national governments, have given power and influence to finance. The rise in finance has often been at the expense of the decline of industry and has coincided with rising inequality as the rewards from growth have flowed disproportionately to the owners of capital. At a political level, financialisation has been marked by a commitment to a laissez faire approach. Such an approach has been manifest in the greater reliance on markets and private transactions in the allocation of resources including basic utilities and in the emergence of a more individualistic culture.

Financialisation has also entailed shifts at the level of the firm and in corporate governance. In particular, it has been associated with the rise of the ‘shareholder value model’. The latter has privileged the interests of shareholders above those of other stakeholders, most notably workers. Indeed, the pursuit of shareholder value has implied cuts in labour costs, and in practice, has meant reduced wages and worse terms and conditions for workers.

The financialisation of firms has seen economic returns rise through financial engineering rather than real engineering. Owners have made money through buying back shares in their firms. Here money has been taken out of firms and used to enrich owners at the expense of reinvestment within the firms themselves. Workers, on the other hand, have faced squeezes on their real incomes and pressures to curb benefits (e.g. pensions), in the name of shareholder value maximisation.

The point is that contemporary capitalism has faced forces of financialisation that have pushed in the direction of a more unequal economy. These forces have meant enrichment for a few and hardship for the many. They have, though, created the conditions for crises and system breakdown – the GFC revealed the contradictions of financialisation and its potential to founder in a dramatic fashion. 

Low productivity, low investment, and low wages: an unholy trinity 

The period since the GFC, however, has seen the same conditions be reproduced in the economy. Financialisation, in this sense, has not been challenged – to the contrary, if anything, it has been renewed and reshaped. It has though created new problems in its wake, problems that once again promise future disruption and potentially crises.

Of all the problems that now exist, the stand out one remains the problem of low productivity. Globally, productivity has been sluggish and shows little sign of improvement. This is surprising, given the modern stress on the ‘rise of the robots’. Yet, ironically, the problem now seems to be one of a lack of automation – in short, robots are not advancing at a sufficiently rapid rate to boost productivity.

Low productivity is linked to two other problems, namely those of low wages and low investment. The lack of growth in productivity is holding back wage growth, while low investment is restraining productivity growth. There are also feedback effects, in the sense that low wages create disincentive effects for firms to invest in capital – why should firms bother investing in new technology when they can meet demand by hiring more cheaper priced labour? Low wages, too, create a disincentive for workers to expend higher effort and lead to a higher quit rate that harms productivity.

These problems have only been magnified by the rise of more precarious forms of employment. In the UK, for example, the rise of involuntary self-employment has created a more disposable workforce that employers can hire at will. Labour protections enjoyed by full time workers have been avoided in an effort to lower firm costs. The beneficiaries have been capital owners; the losers have been the owners of labour power. Indeed, the latter have suffered the longest squeeze in real wages for over a century and a half. The move to ‘full employment’ in the UK has been matched by a rise in poverty pay. It has also coincided with slow and lagging productivity growth – a problem that has exacerbated existing weaknesses of low pay.

The fundamental problem here is the political economy of capitalism. The fact that capital – in particular, financial capital – has power over labour makes it difficult to break free of the vicious cycle of low productivity, low investment, and low wages. Rather the unequal balance of power embeds and perpetuates this cycle in ways that create depressive conditions in economy and society.

Financialisation, in short, remains an impediment to sustaining growth with lower inequality. Indeed, its persistence makes it more likely that the economy will experience unbalanced growth, yet higher inequality, and ultimately a further crash. The prospect of another crisis puts into perspective the perversity of the system in which we continue to live. 

De-financialising the economy 

The answer to the problems of the system lie in system-reversal. It entails no less than the reversal of financialisation and the move to a ‘de-financialised’ state wherein the economy provides the conditions for sustainable economic growth and for enhanced well-being.

An economy that works for all is one that sets limits on the power of finance. It is an economy where policy makers enact policies to support industry, infrastructure, and technology in a direct way. It is one where the state provides certainty over investment and over the future course of the economy. It is one where the state takes the lead in ensuring that inequality is reduced and the ownership of productive assets is fairly and democratically distributed.

De-financialisation, in this sense, implies a proactive industrial policy, higher taxes on income and wealth, and changes in ownership. In the latter case, it implies a move away from the shareholder value model and towards a system of shared ownership with representation from workers on boards and in decision-making. In the UK, it means challenging the dominant power of finance and seeking ways to engage workers in ownership and management functions.

Addressing problems of low productivity, low wages, and low investment requires a holistic approach that tackles the failures of the financialised system of capitalism. It requires a move to a more democratic system wherein the interests of the many count for more than the few.

The barriers, economic as well as political, to de-financialisation are formidable. Indeed they necessitate fundamental institutional reform. Yet, these barriers should not deter us from seeking to overcome them. To the contrary, they should galvanise us to go forward in the pursuit of a better system that promises to secure a higher standard of living and of life for the majority.

*** This article was originally published at the European Financial Review

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Bad work will persist in spite of the Taylor Review

The government’s independent review on modern working practices in the UK contains some important messages. Put together by Matthew Taylor, head of the RSA think tank and former policy chief to Tony Blair, the review highlights the fact that job creation alone is not sufficient to create a “thriving economy and fair society”. Rather, progress is also needed to create “better jobs”. The focus on the quality of work underscores a broader goal to promote “good quality work for all”.

But the review stops short of recommending major changes in employment regulation and adopts an approach that is ostensibly business-friendly. Beyond the high principles, there is a failure to tackle the underlying causes and drivers of bad work. The fact that the government has welcomed the review speaks to its essential conservatism.

Paying the price for higher employment

The years since the 2007-08 crisis have seen employment rise to record levels in the UK. This situation would imply a favourable environment for workers to improve their pay and their terms and conditions of work. Higher employment, in theory, means that workers have stronger bargaining power to gain concessions from employers. Yet, in practice, the opposite has occurred. Workers have had to forgo both higher pay and job security to gain access to and maintain employment.

The UK is the only country in the EU where employment has risen at the same time as real pay has fallen. The flexible labour market has delivered to employers the labour they require at lower rates of real pay. For workers, it has delivered work that is barely able to cover the cost of living.

The review recognises how the country’s move to full employment has been at the expense of more low quality jobs. Workers have been required to become self-employed and to take jobs in the so-called “gig economy” to make ends meet. These forms of employment have not only yielded poor financial outcomes for workers; they have also meant greater insecurity, exploitation and control by bosses.

“Bad work” (insecure, exploitative and controlling), the review says, has wider economic and social impacts. It erodes the health and well-being of workers. It also holds back productivity – the amount workers produce per hour – and makes the economy in general less productive. Resolving bad work is therefore seen as key to overcoming the UK’s productivity deficit and as a vital ingredient in building a more cohesive and participatory society.

Beyond full employment, in short, the goal should be to maximise “good work”.

What’s recommended

The review recommends changes to the status and entitlement of workers in the gig economy. There is a new recommended category of “dependent contractor”, which sits somewhere between full time employed and self employed status, and is designed to prevent bogus forms of self-employment.

There are also recommendations to make it easier for gig workers to gain benefits such as sick and holiday pay. Plus, it is recommended that agency workers and those on zero hours contracts gain the “right to request” a more formal working relationship after a 12-month period.

To many, the recommendations will appear too timid. Why not outlaw all zero hours contracts, for example? Others may argue that the recommendations are simply harmonising existing workers’ rights – they are bringing gig work up to what is a minimum standard of labour protection and are downplaying issues of the non-enforcement of existing legislation.

Unions have declared their disappointment that the report is no game-changer. A sentiment that is likely to be shared by many millions of UK workers who will continue to face real hardships at work.

Power matters

The review resists imposing greater costs on employers. It refers to the fact that “the ‘employment wedge’ (the additional, largely non-wage, costs associated with taking someone on as an employee) is already high and we should avoid increasing it further”. The stress is on exhorting businesses to change – a policy stance that has failed over many decades to deliver a better deal for workers at work.

There is also a scapegoating of the low paid for working cash-in-hand, but no condemnation of the bosses of big corporations for not paying tax. This unbalanced commentary suggests a review that favours businesses more than workers.

Theresa May declared that the review is consistent with her commitment to “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for everyone”. Yet, her government lacks the political will to tackle the injustices at work and beyond. The need to protect and promote workers’ rights goes against the grain of the market-based approach that May’s government avows.

“‘The British way’ works and we don’t need to overhaul the system”, proclaims the review. Yet, years of “the British way” have brought us a low wage economy wherein employers lack the incentives to invest in labour and workers lack the power to push for progressive reform. The system, in truth, is broken and needs overhauling if Britain is ever to achieve higher quality work for all.

The review, in policy terms, looks destined to change very little. Indeed, it can be seen to reinforce the view that vested interests still rule in UK workplaces, frustrating progress towards fairness and dignity at work.

*** This article was originally posted at the Conversation

Friday, 13 January 2017

A crisis in economics? If only it were true

The Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, recently criticised his very own profession. This led to a bout of soul searching for economists as we face, again, the familiar criticism that nobody predicted the 2008 financial crisis (in fact, some economists did) and reflect on whether the subject is being taught properly at school and university.

Yet Haldane’s criticisms are less severe than they might first appear. Indeed they remain largely innocuous at the level of economic prediction.

To his credit, Haldane made some effort to highlight more deep-seated problems in economics. These problems relate to issues of theory and method. They are also related to an unwillingness to allow dissent within economics and to open up to other disciplines.

Unwittingly, however, he distracts attention away from these problems by focusing on the issue of forecasting and misses the opportunity to ram home the point that economics is flawed in a fundamental sense. Better forecasts cannot exonerate economics from its failings now and in the past.

Weak and off-target

Economics should be in crisis. But in reality it is not. Rather, economics remains largely the same as it was before the financial crisis – in effect, it remains just as problematic now as in the past. This is an issue not just for economics but for society as a whole, given the enduring power and influence of the discipline on policy and public life.

To think of economics in terms of forecasting is to limit its nature and scope. Economics ought to be about explanation. It should be able to make sense of the world beyond forecasts of the future. It is not clear that as it exists now, economics is able to understand the world in its present form. To this extent, it cannot help understand the frequency and depth of crises.

Economists remain committed to a particular approach to theory building in which mathematical models are all that count. They are often too abstract to be tested and exist as formal abstractions with no connection to the real world. For example, some macroeconomic models before the crisis were so out of touch with reality they excluded the existence of banks. No wonder the crisis came as a surprise.

As things stand, there is little chance that economics will open up to the ideas and methods of other disciplines. Instead, the discipline has embraced a project of “economic imperialism” seeking to colonise other social sciences. Genuine interdisciplinary debate has lost out in this process.

Haldane’s criticisms of economics, therefore, remain weak and off target. He calls for economics to learn from meteorology. That way it can improve its forecasts. What he misses is the need for radical change at the level of theory and method. He misses the need for economics to embrace reform that turns it into a social science which explains the world as it actually is – not a device for better predicting the economic weather.

Alternatives exist

To be sure, Haldane questioned standard economic assumptions such as that of all actors being perfectly rational. He has also encouraged the use of alternative methods like agent-based modelling, which offers a more realistic view of individual behaviour. Yet, his proposals for reform are limited and weak. The notion that economics might need to be reworked from first principles and rebuilt as a more open and less formal social science remains implicit in his criticisms.

Alternative economic ideas do exist. They exist among dissenting heterodox economists, but they remain on the fringes of economics debate, without any real influence on the core discipline itself.

This fact is probably a surprise to most. Surely the crisis has led to a rebirth in the study of great economic thinkers like Marx, Keynes, and Hayek? After all, these thinkers studied in detail the economic system including its crisis-prone nature.

The sad truth is that this rebirth hasn’t happened. In fact, any rebirth has been stifled by the insularity of the economics discipline. Economic dissenters like Marx, Keynes, and Hayek are still more likely to be studied by scholars outside of economics than within it.

So while Haldane is correct to call for reform in economics he misses the barriers to reform and the need to overcome them. He misses how economics has stifled dissent and how the restructuring of economics requires root-and-branch reform in the way that economics is studied. We need economists that are not better weather forecasters but rather committed social scientists concerned with addressing and resolving real-world problems on an ongoing basis.

*** This blog also appeared at the Conversation

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Sleep deprivation costs the economy billions – and sends workers to an early grave

The British economy loses £40 billion a year due to sleep deprivation, according to a new study. Beyond the loss of economic output, sleep-deprived Britons are shortening their lives. The study shows that people who sleep less than six hours a night have a 13% higher mortality rate than those sleeping at least seven hours.

Many Britons, in short, are swapping slumber for an early grave. They are sacrificing years of their life by not getting a good night’s sleep.

But what lies behind this sleep malaise? What is keeping Britons awake at night? And what can be done to combat sleep deprivation?

Many factors contribute to sleeplessness, from family worries through to financial concerns. But one factor that stands out is work. The work we do determines how much sleep we get by affecting how tired we are, how anxious we feel, and how much free time we get. Thus, sleep loss cannot be properly solved without addressing the way we work – in particular, it entails moves to kick the work ethic and to work less.

The costs of sleeplessness

The study by research firm Rand Europe looks at the effects of sleep deprivation in five countries. It finds that the economic cost (in terms of working days lost) due to lack of sleep is greatest in the US (up to US$411 billion a year, equating to 2.28% of its GDP), followed by Japan (up to US$138 billion a year, equal to 2.92% of its GDP). Next comes Germany (up to US$60 billion, 1.56% of its GDP) and the UK (up to US$50 billion, 1.86% of its GDP). Canada records the lowest economic cost due to sleep deprivation (up to US$21.4 billion, which is 1.35% of its GDP).

These estimates are used to show the significant economic benefits of extending sleep time. For example, if Americans that sleep less than six hours could start sleeping six to seven hours, then the US economy could grow by US$226.4 billion.

The important added benefit of extended sleep time is that it reduces the chances of premature death.

Low sleep levels are a reflection of new trends in our relationship with work. The divide between work and life outside of work has become blurred. People now find themselves at work even when at home. The expectation of being on call outside of work has increased, through the use of smartphones and laptops.

Plus, while official work hours may have declined in most countries, unofficial (out-of-hours) working has increased. This time is not only performed for free; it also comes at the cost of time with family and friends, and crucially time for sleep. Workers cannot easily switch-off from work if they have access to technologies that connect them to their place of work. Checking email can often replace going to sleep. It can also mean lying awake at night thinking of what emails to send or reply to. 

Recent years have also seen a rise in self-employment and other forms of precarious work. This rise has left workers vulnerable to a never-ending cycle of work. Even when not working, time is spent seeking new work or chasing payment from work already done. The stress and anxiety of not having the same benefits as full-time workers and of getting-by on low wages makes for a life where sleep is short and disturbed.

Meanwhile, society’s approach to work remains the same as it ever was. The sanctity of work remains unquestioned, despite it taking time away from sleep and robbing people of their health. In Britain, work is still lauded as the best way to prosperity and health. The illusion is that “work pays” even though for many it lacks any stimulating content, pays a pittance, and is performed at the expense of sleep.

Timid reforms

The study by Rand Europe, despite its critical implications, reaches weak policy recommendations. It refers to the need for people to “set consistent wake-up times; limit the use of electronic items before bedtime; and exercise”. Missing is any reference to peoples’ lack of choice and control. The inability to switch-off from work is not recognised as an endemic problem, in need of collective solutions.

Employers are encouraged to recognise the “importance of sleep” and to “design and build brighter workspaces; combat workplace psychosocial risks; and discourage the extended use of electronic devices”. These are laudable goals but they miss how employers benefit from out-of-hours working (at least in the short run) and how they may be encouraged to turn a blind-eye to sleep deprivation for profit reasons.

Public authorities are encouraged to “support health professionals in providing sleep-related help; encourage employers to pay attention to sleep issues; and introduce later school starting times”. Again there is nothing here on overcoming the deeper-lying limits to sleep time, which connect with the work system as a whole.

We are left with the false impression that sleep deprivation can be tackled in a piecemeal way and without broader action, such as curbs on work time, extended paid holidays, and stronger unions.

Dreams of a better world

Being constantly at work and losing sleep is not good for anyone. It ultimately reflects a culture where work comes before life. It represents a world out of sync with humanity – a perversion of life and a road to ruin.

This is why more radical solutions are needed. Gaining more sleep requires creating a society in which work is less important in human life. It necessitates a move to a society where leisure and rest are given their due weight and technology is actually harnessed to enable more rest and less work – not the opposite.

The demand for more sleep translates into a demand for less work. This means shorter work hours and more free time. It means a life where we rest easy in our beds, get enough sleep, and have the opportunity to dream of a better world to come.

*** This article was originally published at the Conversation (see here)