Could Long Covid lead to the rise of a four-day workweek? – The guard

Aside from being constantly exhausted, in pain and out of breath, one of the hardest things about a long Covid is finding your self-worth outside of the work force. I am one of almost 2 million people in the UK and 20 million in the US who are now taking on this challenge. Other people with disabilities know this well: our culture glorifies work, often at the expense of health. Remember all the dreams of change we had at the beginning of the pandemic? Now I’m wondering: Could Covid-19’s long tail usher in a deeper shift away from our work-obsessed culture?

The time has come for one. We worked too long and too hard before the pandemic. British workers, for example, work two and a half weeks more per year than the average European and half of our absenteeism from work is caused by stress, anxiety or depression. Meanwhile, workers in the US spend an extra four hours a week at work, with three-quarters of workers experiencing significant job stress.

I see it clearly with my friends in their early 20s who have to choose between tedious but self-sustaining service work and more “creative” jobs that consume their lives. So many of those struggling with anxiety and depression will base their self-esteem today on how “productive” they were. Pleasure has become guilty; calm, a moment of failure; and burnout, an almost inevitable milestone.

how did we get here Some – most notably the theorist Max Weber – trace it back to the rise of Protestantism in the 16th century. Others point to the 20th-century propaganda campaigns that followed each of the world wars and reconfigured work as a patriotic duty. More recently, the “benefitscrounger” discourse of the 2010s and the corporate Uber economy have tightened the chains. Wherever it comes from, the cult of work dominates our lives.

We could use an anti-labor propaganda campaign. There would be an infinite amount of material for one. As long as nobody had to take a wage cut, a reduction in working hours would improve life overall. A recent study showed that shortening the working week by one day could reduce CO2 emissions by 30%. A four-day work week would also reduce gender inequalities and redistribute the 60% more unpaid work done by women compared to men. Additionally, a series of high-profile studies at Microsoft, Deloitte, and Kickstarter show that working less increases the overall effectiveness of our work.

And none of that covers the secondary effects: imagine the unburdening of our healthcare system from a drop in stress-related illnesses, the flourishing of local democracy as people have more time to get involved, the great art people could make that Technology breakthroughs…

Beyond my own experience, Covid-19 has made this a live issue for all of us. In addition to working from home, the number of companies offering a four-day work week has increased by 15% since the pandemic began. A recent poll found that nearly 60% of the UK public supports a four-day work week, and other polls show a rise in managers warming to the idea. Earlier this month, 4-day workweek Global and think tank Autonomy launched a new trial that will see 3,000 people across 70 companies adopt a four-day workweek.

This is exciting, but it alone will not be enough. Our work ethic is ingrained, and historically reduced working hours have only been hard won by unions and social movements. The many attempts at the four-day week make sense, but workers are underrepresented in them. It’s also very likely that some workers will see more free time as a threat. (I always remember John E. Edgerton, President of the US National Association of Manufacturers, saying in 1920: “Nothing breeds radicalism like unhappiness unless it is leisure.”) Right now, unions are the only thing the hours of work shortened working class today. The 2018 Communications Workers Union victory for postal workers in the UK and IG Metall for engineering workers in Germany are two recent examples.

Now, in this buoyant time for British and American labor unionism, with historic labor movements at Amazon and Starbucks, and with what is known in Britain as the “Summer of Discontent”, we will be able to meaningfully impact not only rewards of the work, but the necessity of the work itself?

If unions demand shorter workweeks, they would keep up with the young people who are leading the broader cultural movement. During the peak of the pandemic, in a time dubbed the Great Resignation, more young people quit their jobs in the US than in decades. The hashtag #QuitTok and 44,000 videos created on TikTok with the sound clip “I don’t have a dream job. I don’t dream of work,” suggests mass disenchantment, as do the 1.7 million members of the r/antiwork Reddit thread.

Journalist Rosie Spinks convincingly argues that culturally we are moving away from the entrepreneurial, evolving personality brands of the 2000s and back to the ’90s affection for the character of the “slacker”: “the dudes and the clerks, the stick-it-to -the-man, stay-yourself-burnouts”. I breathe a sigh of relief that something might be replacing the influencer, gig working, and hustler ideal I grew up with. It’s amazing to see how far we’ve internalized this model.

For me the long Covid I have had since the beginning of this year has brought this to great relief. The illness demands rest. Not just a day or two in bed, but months and months of rest. Overexertion can leave you too exhausted for the most basic things; no television, no leaving the house, no conversations longer than 10 minutes. Even though I now know the disease well, I still often don’t get enough rest. This is partly a normal anxiety, but also the burned-in ideal of hard work as the only real source of success, worth, and purpose.

One thing I’ve learned is that while we wait for the collective action we need from unions, movements and government – small shifts now can help. We can all give each other permission to slow down and rest. We can all question our own inner urge to keep ourselves busy. And in the space we create, new questions about measuring success can arise. Instead of “How productive was I today?” We might start asking more like “How much did I voluntarily give today?”, “How much care did I take?”, or “How much did I support others?”