Posted by: Mark Nielsen | March 3, 2008

Working Our Way Toward Better Rest

This item on CNN.com this morning spurred me to thinking (which we all know is a dangerous thing nowadays):  

While sleepy workers know they’re not performing as well as they could during the day, work is what’s keeping them up nights, according to the survey, which found workdays are getting longer and time spent working from home averages close to four-and-a-half hours each week.

It seems people are also trying to squeeze in more time for themselves and their families, even if it means less sleep. According to the survey, the average time to wake up is at 5:35 a.m. and it’s followed by about two hours and 15 minutes at home before heading out to work.

  The study that this comes from was done by the National Sleep Foundation. There were only 1,000 people surveyed, though, so it may not be completely accurate or comprehensive. Nevertheless, it raises some tough questions. Like this: in our greed and insecurity, are we addicted as a culture to productivity? Do we consistently compromise our quality of life, are we forced to do so, because we have to work for money instead of money working for us? And is it really that essential to keep up with the Joneses, or with JonesCorp? (There are historical and philosophical reasons the “Dow-Jones” industrial average is called that… and since right-wing Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch is the one gleefully pulling the strings at the Wall-Street Journal now, he’s kind of in a position to set the pace for the Dows and Joneses, isn’t he?) That average waking time, 5:35, is what really caught my attention most. It’s a bit later than 5:10, the time my wife, a public school administrator, gets up. Now, one might ask why a teacher or department head at a school which starts classes at 8:10 has to get up so early? Here’s some hints: it’s not the commute, which for her is only 20 minutes; it’s not the ACTUAL start time, even though “Early Bird” classes and sports/extra-curriculars now routinely start at 7:20am; and it’s not the “family time” in the morning, as she’s pretty much getting up, making coffee, cleaning herself up, and driving to work by about 6:10.  

What I think is happening, for my wife and millions of other Americans, is that the expectation of productivity for the middle class within a given workday (or schoolday) has steadily gone up in the post-agricultural, post-industrial era. And a school is nothing if not a rehearsal for life in corporate America, because historically that’s what school was meant to convey: a work ethic, a set of economic (not academic) values, and a regimented way of organizing one’s life. It’s true, we don’t go to school to learn information or gain knowledge in the classical sense. We go to school to learn and practice culture, especially industrious, productive behaviors, individually and in groups. Any educator, historian or philosopher will tell you this (if they’ve done their homework).  Now I’m not proposing that we slow down so much that we fall behind. What I’m saying is that we need to re-think schools, and the workplace in general, so that we work smarter and healthier. If not, our compulsive need to constantly make everything better, stronger, faster, and more cheaply (like they did for the Six Million Dollar Man, who’s now worth just $3 million) has the potential to send our children’s physical and mental health into a downward spiral that will only ensure failure in a changing global marketplace. 

What that drive to pack more work into a workday translates to for my wife is that she has to get up to half of her own individual paperwork and preparations done between 6:30 and 8:10, because she knows that the flurry of new school-wide or departmental needs will begin in earnest as soon as the actual school day begins. At that point –with various meetings, phonecalls, and semi-urgent on-the-fly situations– large time blocks for concentrated work sessions are very difficult to come by. And unless I’m mistaken, that 8:10am start-time for my wife’s high school is at least a half-hour to fifty minutes later than school started when our parents went to high school. In an informal poll I took of some teachers over 50, they all said their school day was typically from 9am to about 2:30.So what has happened to the world in 50 years, that we now need two or more extra hours of schooling a day? In China, it’s a full 9am to 5pm day for school kids, and maybe more, with few breaks. But at least they have some nap/free time scheduled in the middle of the day, not unlike in Europe. As for workdays, the U.S. is not even the worst offender. It’s common knowledge that in Japan, 10-12 hour workdays are common. This is not unlike the length of workdays in the 19th century, when the agrarian economy and it’s dawn to dusk schedule ruled the day. But at least in that case, work time often coincided with family time, and few people traveled very far –if at all— to get to where they worked. 

Once upon a time, labor unions and well-intentioned civic and religious leaders helped to abolish child labor and establish the eight hour workday as the humane standard worldwide. But we seem to be losing ground in that struggle again.   What so-called pragmatists might say is that we can’t afford to work less, nor to pay 1.5 workers to do the job that a single worker now does. That’s a specious argument, though, as it assumes that everything that is presently being accomplished absolutely must be done. But time is a limited resource, as is individual human potential. Who is to say what we can back off on? So why can’t we employ five teachers for every soldier, twenty factory workers (with good working conditions to cut healthcare and overhead costs) for every manager, and five hundred skilled professionals for every hundred counter-workers at McDonalds?The bottom line is this: can we really afford NOT to adjust our lifestyles and economies to the realities of the globalized, post-modern world? We need not be the victims of chaos, circumstance, and the obvious population explosion. It is our own human history, our own story to write or change as we see fit. Let’s take it back, and maybe then we’ll stop losing so much sleep over the disintegration of our civilized way of life. 


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