We’re All Burning Ourselves Out to Keep Money Flowing Up to the Rich

Increased productivity has failed to translate into fair compensation, and we’re all working ourselves to death. Not having time to rest or think is not just terrible for human beings — it’s terrible for democracy.

All Work, No Play

In our market society, time spent outside work is often infiltrated by work-related concerns, upsetting what ought to be a sacred time and space of rest. When we’re not working, we’re thinking about working, we’re worrying about working, we’re checking e-mail, or we’re being asked to “go the extra mile” and put in more time. The digital tether has contributed considerably to the blurring of work-rest boundaries, making us constantly available to our boss’s demands 24-7, effectively transforming home-life into a mere work extracurricular.

All of this presupposes that one’s cost of living allows for any time off. In Canada, the affordability crisis — particularly in housing — has forced millions to push harder and work more just to keep a roof over their head. This, in turn, restricts the already scarce free time one might manage to secure. And while overall work hours aren’t exactly equivalent to the Dickensian era, work hours are on the rise. The exact extent is hard to gauge because of the rise of temporary gigs and side hustles enabled by developments in technology. The promise that technology would liberate time for workers has yet to materialize; instead, it has contributed to an escalation in exploitation.

In a Harris Poll in May, Canadian workers offered some suggestions for preventing or alleviating burnout, with a common theme being workplace and personal control. A flexible work schedule topped the list, followed closely by supporting time off. To the extent that burnout is a problem of control, transferring more of it to workers is key to addressing burnout. More time off is a no-brainer, too. Naturally, paying workers more is also important — though that doesn’t necessary solve the overwork problem.

We live in a culture that expects and venerates unreasonable work hours despite mounds of data that suggest working longer doesn’t make you more productive — and, indeed, often makes you less productive. We should be wary of the cult of productivity, but pro-productivity narratives in the workplace are often wrong on their own terms insofar as they preach long hours as the measure of good work.

Burnout for the Working Masses, Payout for the Owning Classes

Adding insult to injury in the pro-productivity narratives is the reality that, despite decades of improving productivity in North American workplaces, workers’ pay has not mirrored this growth. Between the early 1970s and the present, productivity has surged by almost 65 percent, whereas hourly wages have seen a mere 17.3 percent increase. With productivity outpacing pay by 3.7 times, one might rightly question where this substantial surplus in production has gone. The answer, predictably, lies in its diversion toward shareholders and corporate managers.

Our lives outside the workplace are meant to be spaces where we can relax, reset, and connect with the people and things that give us meaning. Overwork, underpay, exhaustion, stress, and anxiety induced by our working lives undermines those spaces and connections, as we drag the worst of our work lives into our personal lives. So, our time-off becomes a space of festering anger and resentment, which further fuels the burnout. It’s a vicious cycle that undermines both our working and nonworking lives.

In the private time we have, we are often forced to confront a world that further tests the limits of our patience and sanity, and our capacity for hope. Staring down an ever-running river of awful news at home and abroad compromises our ability to rest and enjoy what there is to enjoy of life outside work. The classic logic of the good, civic-minded person calls for someone who is conscious of and engaged with the news of the day — all the better to be informed, prepared to mobilized, and unlikely to be duped by the powers that be. Or so goes the theory.

Read more at The Guardian