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Emailing in the evening? The new battle to keep work out of our free time

Experiments with banning out-of-hours emails show that how much time off we get is political, writes Adam McGibbon

April 15, 2014
4 min read

I’m doing it right now. If your work involves a computer, you probably are too – almost inadvertently, sending work emails or working outside of hours. You check your inbox, end up sending a few emails and then before you know it, you’re working from your sofa, out at the pub, in the park – or even on holiday.

The 21st century has brought us massive technological advances – devices fitting into your hand where we can access the sum total of human knowledge. The ability to communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime. But that comes with its tradeoffs. As we break down the distances between us, we also break down the walls between our work lives and our private lives. This means many people can never truly ‘switch off’.

And that is doing many of us great harm. 80 per cent of American workers recently reported being stressed out at work. One in 5 UK workers take time off because of the affects of overwork. The European Commission believe stress accounts for half of all lost working days. And this makes us sick, unhappy and, ultimately, can shorten our lives.

In a world with instant access to our workplace, where people continue to compete for status, there is tremendous pressure to work outside of set hours. A time when you could walk away from your workplace and leave your work there too has disappeared for many.

Luckily, on the continent, people are beginning to recognise this. In France, an agreement between unions and employers means that employers are not to contact workers in the French arms of Google, Deloitte and other companies. This follows a similar move by a small number of employers in Germany – including the Labour Ministry – last year.

The French case has been widely misreported as a change in the law, rather than just an agreement that affects a small amount of workers. But the fact that this has hit such a nerve across the internet seems to indicate that this idea resonates with many – and indicates that many worry about how their free time has been eroded by new technology.

Across the world, slowly, there is a growing recognition of how long working hours – and the intrusion of work into our private lives – is making us sick, making us unhappy, unproductive and even wrecking the planet. Gothenberg City Council in Sweden are now experimenting with a 30-hour week.

Keynes thought that by the 21st century we would all be working about 8 hours a week and getting paid liveable wages for it. The history of human progress up until fairly recently has been people working less and less, and having more time to actually live and enjoy life. The triumph of neoliberal doctrine has reversed this – and to the benefit of nobody.

The UK has some of the highest working hours in the EU – and if ‘hard work’ was inherently a good thing, we would have the highest wages too. We don’t. Far from it. Overworking causes mental health problems, bad health, unfulfilling lives, and early death. And breaking down the barriers between workplace and home makes this worse.

The New Economics Foundation’s ‘21 Hours’ report is compelling reading into how we can all live happily, productively and sustainably while working much less, and simply enjoying life. These protections of workers’ free time – and placing a long-forgotten value on it – are workers’ rights for the 21st century. Time off is political. The UK needs similar and stronger protections for our free time, now.