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The Right To Be Lazy

Why the Cult of Hard Work is Counterproductive, an absolutely wonderful article by Steven Poole published in New Statesman a couple of weeks ago, goes into "why doing nothing may be the best thing for your well-being and your brain."

Though it's a British article for a British publication and doesn't even mention the word "American," it has a huge bearing on a discussion of American-versus-European concepts of work and leave time that several of us were having here on my journal a few days ago.



Here's a longish relevant quote from the middle of the article:

A recent article in the London newspaper Metro reported that research had shown that “dedicated Britons” were “less likely to pull a sickie” than workers in Germany and France. The researcher claimed: “Strong employment protection and generous sick pay was empirically found to contribute to increased staff sickness in Germany and France.” It could indeed be that Europeans are slackers and Brits are peculiarly “dedicated”. Or it could be that Britain’s more “flexible” labour market terrifies citizens into struggling into work even when they are ill.

The reason sickness is undesirable is not that it causes distress or discomfort but that it results in what is often called “lost productivity”. This is a sinister and absurd notion, predicated on the greedy fallacy of counting chickens before they have hatched. “Workplace absence through sickness was reported to cost British business £32bn a year,” the researcher claimed in Metro: a normal way of phrasing things today, but one with curious implications. The idea seems to be that business already has that money even though it hasn’t earned it yet and employees who fail to maintain “productivity” as a result of sickness or other reasons are, in effect, stealing this as yet entirely notional sum from their employers.


(I'm struck by how "American" that that attitude sounds, and I realize that I'm conflating "American" and "corporate," as one does. The fact that it's not, in fact, an American statement just confirms for me that the corporatism that has thrived in American cultural soil is spreading really fast.)



Poole takes on the very idea of productivity (tracing the word itself right back to its first use by Coleridge in the late 18th century), and pretty well demolishes it as a moral construct. He ends on this lovely note:

...it is not necessary to abandon the notion of “productivity” altogether. We all like to feel that we have done something useful, interesting or fun with our day, even (or especially) if it has not been part of our official work, and we might harmlessly express such satisfaction by saying that our day has been productive.

This ordinary usage encodes an ordinary wisdom: that mere quantity of activity – as implied by the get-more-done mania of the productivity cult – has nothing to do with its value.


Well worth the reading, and what's more, the comments are excellent and actually add substance to the article.

Crossposted from Dreamwidth, where there are comment count unavailable comments.

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