We’re Being Worked to Death by Capital
Long working hours kill more than 700,000 people per year, even as millions are unable to find enough work to survive. The irrationality of capitalism has a human price.
I recently came across a print with an unwieldy name. It’s listed on both Amazon and Etsy as “Hustle Weekly Schedule Canvas Print Motivational Wall Office Decor Modern Art Entrepreneur Inspirational Rise Grind Entrepreneurship Success.”
The SEO-name doesn’t roll off the tongue, but it does convey the spirit of the object. It’s a rectangular print — a 36 x 24 inch version will cost you $120 on Amazon — with black text on a white background. “WEEKLY SCHEDULE” is written across the top. “Rise and Grind 24/7” follows in smaller lettering below, then “New week, new goals!” Below that comes the schedule, which reads as follows:
At the bottom is a line of fine print: “You can’t have a million dollar dream with a minimum wage work ethic.”
I came across this decor while doing one of my frequent internet dives into hustle culture, a world of people convincing themselves to work harder and longer. The hustle weekly schedule might be comical in its grinning embrace of self-exploitation, and plenty of people would find it ridiculous, but it’s also a reflection of how the demands of work are experienced by a growing number of people: constant, with weekends nonexistent, and second and third jobs a necessity.
Working time is expanding into every nook and cranny of people’s lives, and it’s killing hundreds of thousands of people each year.
That’s the finding of a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Labour Organization (ILO) which analyzes the health outcomes of people who work fifty-five or more hours per week. The organizations analyze data from around the world and find that in 2016, working fifty-five or more hours a week resulted in 745,194 deaths, up from roughly 590,000 in 2000. Of these deaths, 398,441 are attributable to stroke and 346,753 to heart disease. This puts those working these hours at an estimated 35 percent higher risk of stroke and 17 percent higher risk of heart disease compared to people working thirty-five to forty-hour weeks. Men and middle-aged adults are particularly exposed, and the problem is most prevalent in Southeast Asia.
As for how overwork kills us, the report identifies two pathways. For some, the stress of overwork may cause the body to release excessive stress hormones that trigger cardiovascular problems. For others, the stress may lead to unhealthy habits, such as smoking, heavy drinking, a poor diet, a lack of exercise, and bad sleep, which in turn contribute to cardiovascular risk.
The prevalence of the problem makes overwork more dangerous than other occupational hazards. Exposure to carcinogens kills less people than a long workweek. It’s certainly not the only way that work kills — deaths on the job still claim a lot of lives globally — but it’s a growing problem. A lot of us are exposed to the grind: in 2016, 8.9 percent of the global population, around 488 million people, worked at least fifty-five hours per week.
Why are we being worked to death? The expansion of the gig economy and decline of stable work — and the reduction in worker power that both results from and gave rise to so-called gig work — is largely to blame.
In the decades following the Industrial Revolution, there had been a downward trend in the number of hours worked on average, even if this was unevenly experienced around the globe and across segments of the working class. Much of that is thanks to the efforts of workers themselves to gain control over their lives. “If you love the weekend, thank a union,” as they say.
The martyring of radicals at Haymarket in 1886 took place at a rally for the eight-hour day, for instance, which itself followed from decades-long efforts to impose the first-ever limits on the work day, as well as on child labor. As Samuel Gompers, the first AFL-CIO president, said during the fight for the eight-hour day, “However much they may differ upon other matters … all men of labor … can unite upon this.”
But in recent years, the trend toward shorter working hours has halted, and in some cases, reversed. A 2018 ILO report found that there has been a bifurcation of working hours, “with substantial portions of the global workforce working either excessively long hours (more than 48 hours per week), which particularly affects men, or short hours/part-time work (less than 35 hours per week), which predominantly impacts women.”
The link between overwork and underwork, or unemployment, is not new. As Karl Marx describes it in Capital, “the overwork of the employed part of the working class swells the ranks of the reserve while, conversely, the greater pressure that the reserve by its competition exerts on the employed workers forces them to submit to over-work and subjects them to the dictates of capital.”
The reserve here is the reserve army of labor, the people who stand outside the factory gates, serving as a useful tool for the employer when a worker complains (“If you don’t want this job, there are plenty of people who would gladly take it off your hands!”) Overwork couples with underwork: in retail, for example, the majority of jobs are now part-time, a major shift from a few decades ago, when some 70 to 80 percent of such jobs were full time.
These connections make the fight for shorter working hours, and greater control over scheduling, strategically generative: the demand unites people across positions in the broader society, and, much to the bosses’ chagrin, can meld the interests of the employed, underemployed, and unemployed.
Jon Messenger, the author of the 2018 ILO report, links the rise in working hours to a few developments. There has been “a diversification of working time arrangements,” he writes, “with a movement away from the standard workweek consisting of fixed working hours each day for a fixed number of days and towards various forms of ‘flexible’ working time arrangements (e.g. new forms of shift work, hours averaging, flexi-time arrangements, compressed workweeks, on-call work).” With these arrangements comes the expectations that one always be on call — Rise and Grind 24/7.
These new standards around availability are entangled with the growing use of new information and communication technologies, the proliferation of smartphones, laptops, and tablets. Now, whether it’s a white-collar worker in the United States or a rideshare driver in India, there is no clear boundary between being on the clock, and being off of it. Not only one’s personal time, but one’s personal spaces — think: a Zoom call with your boss, which virtually places him inside your home — are colonized by work.
This is an emergency for the working class, one that demands action. There must be a reduction of working hours for those who are worked to death, and guarantees on minimum working hours for those who are struggling to scrape together enough income to stay afloat. We need stronger boundaries between work and the rest of our life, as well as paid leave and sick day laws to ensure that workers aren’t forced to shape themselves around the demands of employers. And there must be worker organization strong enough to enforce these laws and standards.
Work, at least as it currently exists, sucks. There’s a reason they have to pay you to do it. With overwork killing nearly a million people a year, now is the time to double down on the struggle for less time to the boss, and more time for what we will. Our lives should not be centered around production for profit. Should we relax the grip work discipline has on our use of time, wrote E. P. Thompson, we might “relearn some of the arts of living … how to fill the interstices of their day with enriched, more leisurely, personal and social relations.” Or, as one writer of a post-work manifesto put it, “It’s time to get a life.” It’s either that or we drop dead. New week, new goals!