China’s Burned Out Tech Workers are Fighting Back Against Long Hours

1The draining 996 work schedule—named for the expectation that employees work 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week—has persisted in Chinese companies for years despite ongoing public outcry. Even Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma once called it a “huge blessing.”

In early October this year, it seemed the tide might have been turning. After hopeful signs of increased government scrutiny in August, four aspiring tech workers initiated a social media project designed to expose the problem with the nation’s working culture. A publicly editable database of company practices, it soon went viral, revealing working conditions at many companies in the tech sector and helping bring 996 to the center of the public’s attention. It managed to garner 1 million views within its first week.

But the project—first dubbed Worker Lives Matter and then Working Time—was gone almost as quickly as it appeared. The database and the GitHub repository page have been deleted, and online discussions about the work have been censored by Chinese social networking platforms.  The short life of Working Time highlights how difficult it is to make progress against overtime practices that, while technically illegal in China, are still thriving.

But some suspect it won’t be the last anonymous project to take on 996. “I believe there will be more and more attempts and initiatives like this,” says programmer Suji Yan, who has worked on another anti-996 project. With better approaches to avoiding censorship, he says, they could bring even more attention to the problem.

Tracking hours

Working Time started with a spreadsheet shared on Tencent Docs, China’s version of Google Docs. Shortly after it was posted, it was populated with entries attributed to companies such as Alibaba, the Chinese-language internet search provider Baidu, and e-commerce company JD.com.  “9 a.m., 10:30 p.m.–11:00 p.m., six days a week, managers usually go home after midnight,” read one entry linked with tech giant Huawei. “10 a.m., 9 p.m. (off-work time 9 p.m., but our group stays until 9:30 p.m. or 10 p.m. because of involution,” noted another entry (“involution” is Chinese internet slang for irrational competition).

Within three days, more than 1,000 entries had been added. A few days later, it became the top trending topic on China’s Quora-like online forum Zhihu.  As the spreadsheet grew and got more public attention, one organizer, with the user name 秃头才能变强 (“Only Being Bald Can Make You Strong”), came out on Zhihu to share the story behind the burgeoning project. “Four of us are fresh college and master’s degree graduates who were born between 1996 and 2001,” the organizer said.genesis3-1-1

Initially, the spreadsheet was just for information sharing, to help job hunters like themselves, they said. But as it got popular, the organizers decided to push from information gathering to activism. “It is not simply about sharing anymore, as we bear some social responsibility,”

The spreadsheet filled a gap in China, where there is a lack of company rating sites such as Glassdoor and limited ways for people to learn about benefits, office culture, and salary information. Some job seekers depend on word of mouth, while others reach out to workers randomly on the professional networking app Maimai or piece together information from job listings.  “I have heard about 996, but I was not aware it is that common.

Now I see the tables made by others, I feel quite shocked,” Lane Sun, a university student from Nanjing, said when the project was still public. Against 996 According to China’s labor laws, a typical work schedule is eight hours a day, with a maximum of 44 hours a week. Extra hours beyond that require overtime pay, and monthly overtime totals are capped at 36 hours.125x125-1-1-1

But for a long time, China’s tech companies and startups have skirted overtime caps and become notorious for endorsing, glamorizing, and in some cases mandating long hours in the name of hard work and competitive advantage.  In a joint survey by China’s online job site Boss Zhipin and the microblogging platform Weibo in 2019, only 10.6% of workers surveyed said they rarely worked overtime, while 24.7% worked overtime every day.

 Long work hours can benefit workers, Jack Ma explained in 2019. “Since you are here, instead of making yourself miserable, you should do 996,” Ma said in a speech at an internal Alibaba meeting that was later shared online. “Your 10-year working experience will be the same as others’ 20 years.” But the tech community had already started to fight back. Earlier that year, a user created the domain 996.icu.

A repository of the same name was launched on GitHub a few days later. The name means that “by following the 996 work schedule, you are risking yourself getting into the ICU (intensive care unit),” explains the GitHub page, which includes regulations on working hours under China’s labor law and a list of more than 200 companies that practice 996.  Within three days, the repository got over 100,000 stars, or bookmarks, becoming the top trending project on GitHub at that time. It was blocked not long after by Chinese browsers including QQ and 360, ultimately disappearing entirely from the Chinese internet (it is still available through VPNs).

The 996.icu project was quickly followed by the Anti-996 License. Devised by Yan and Katt Gu, who has a legal background, the software license allows developers to restrict the use of their code to those entities that comply with labor laws. In total, the Anti-996 License has been adopted by more than 2,000 projects, Yan says. Today, 996 is facing increasing public scrutiny from both Chinese authorities and the general public.

After a former employee at the agriculture-focused tech firm Pinduoduo died in December 2020, allegedly because of overwork, China’s state-run press agency Xinhua called out overtime culture and advocated for shorter hours.This company delivers packages faster than Amazon, but workers pay the priceSouth Korean e-commerce giant Coupang uses AI to promise almost-instant delivery. But speed comes with troubling labor issues—including worker deaths.

And on August 26, China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and the Supreme People’s Court jointly published guidelines and examples of court cases on overtime, sending reminders to companies and individuals to be aware of labor laws. But even though authorities and state media seem to be taking a tougher stand, it is unclear when or if the rules that make 996 illegal will be fully enforced. Some companies are making changes.quintex-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-1-2-1-1-1-1-2-2-1-1-1

Anthony Cai, a current employee of Baidu, says working six days a week is quite rare in big companies nowadays. This year, several tech companies including and ByteDance, the developer of TikTok, canceled “big/small weeks,” an emerging term in China that refers to working a six-day schedule every other week. “Working on Saturday is not that popular anymore,” Cai says. “However, staying late at the office is still very common, which is not usually counted as overtime hours.” 

 Source: https://www.technologyreview.com

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Why Your Return to the Office Requires Two Workplace Safety Policies

Operating amid the pandemic has entered a new phase of difficulty–particularly for employers of both vaccinated and unvaccinated workers. Shortly after the CDC updated its guidelines on May 13, noting that vaccinated individuals no longer needed to wear facemasks indoors, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a federal agency that oversees workplace health and safety, updated its Covid-19 guidance.

On June 26, OSHA updated guidance in compliance with the CDC to help employers protect workers who are still not vaccinated, with a special emphasis on industries with prolonged close-contacts such as meat processing, manufacturing, seafood, and grocery and high-volume retail. The guidance includes protocols for social distancing, mask wearing, and other health procedures meant to keep both parties safe.

Considering that just 52 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, chances are some of your employees have yet to get a jab. That means if you’re planning a return to the office, you’ll also need to create two separate workplace health policies.

These policies will be different from business to business, depending on the level of community spread in a given location and the level of contact employees have with the public. But acting is a must, says David Barron, labor and employment attorney at Cozen O’Connor. Failing to address a stratified workplace–or even just relying on the honor system–could lead to legal trouble, a loss of morale, turnover, and employees falling sick.

Founders like Dominique Kemps aren’t taking any chances. Her business, GlassExpertsFL, a commercial glass repair company, is located in Miami. Florida overall has been particularly hard hit by the Delta variant, a more contagious strain of the coronavirus. Daily, about 10 in 100,000 people are contracting the coronavirus by way of the Delta variant. As of July 2, only 46 percent of the population of Florida was fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.

Kemps has devised two separate physical workspaces: one for vaccinated employees and another for those who remain unvaccinated. Also for unvaccinated employees, meetings are held virtually, while vaccinated employees can wear a mask and attend if desired. Vaccinated employees can also eat lunch together, while Kemps has asked unvaccinated employees to eat in a designated area. “Frankly,” she says, “it hasn’t been easy.”

Here’s how to ease the transition:

1. Request vaccination information.

Before you make any decisions regarding which policies to enact, first ask and keep track of who is vaccinated and who isn’t, says Dr. Shantanu Nundy, chief medical officer at Accolade, a benefit provider for health care workers. An employer can request a copy of an employee’s vaccination card or other proof, which should help you determine how much of your workforce falls under one policy or another.

If you opt to review vaccination information, note that anything you collect must be considered confidential information that has to be kept private in files that are separate from personnel files. A failure to do so may result in anti-discrimination violations under the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, two laws that protect workers from health status discrimination.

2. Overcommunicate any policy changes.

It’s also crucial to communicate any change in policy openly. Robert Johnson, founder of Sawinery, a Windsor, Connecticut-based creator of woodworking projects, divided workers into two shifts, the first for vaccinated individuals, and another for unvaccinated workers. He’s made it clear to his staff that he’s waiting until everyone is vaccinated before returning to the original schedule.

“The structure won’t compromise anyone’s safety and everyone can work without any worries in mind,” says Johnson.

3. Stay flexible.

If anything has been true about the pandemic, it’s that things can change rapidly. As such, Nundy recommends clarifying that policies are flexible and may be subject to change. Some unvaccinated folks may want to leave if they feel they’re being treated differently, such as not being allowed into the office. Some smart wording can easily allay these concerns, he says. Instead of telling unvaccinated employees that they’re not welcome in the office again, make it clear that the policies are temporary–if that’s the case, of course–and that you’re open to feedback, adds Nundy.

The occupational safety and health policy defines the goals for the occupational health and safety work in the workplace and for activities that promote the working capacity of the staff. The policy also describes occupational health and safety responsibilities and the way of organizing the cooperation measures. The preparation of the occupational safety and health policy is based on the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The policy is employer-specific and applies to all employers.

By: Brit Morse, Assistant editor, Inc.@britnmorse

Source: Why Your Return to the Office Requires Two Workplace Safety Policies | Inc.com

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Critics:

Workplace wellness is any workplace health promotion activity or organizational policy designed to support healthy behavior in the workplace and to improve health outcomes. Known as ‘corporate wellbeing’ outside the US, workplace wellness often comprises activities such as health education, medical screenings, weight management programs, on-site fitness programs or facilities.

Workplace wellness programs can be categorized as primary, secondary, or tertiary prevention efforts, or an employer can implement programs that have elements of multiple types of prevention. Primary prevention programs usually target a fairly healthy employee population, and encourage them to more frequently engage in health behaviors that will encourage ongoing good health (such as stress management, exercise and healthy eating).

Secondary prevention programs are targeted at reducing behavior that is considered a risk factor for poor health (such as smoking cessation programs and screenings for high blood pressure). Tertiary health programs address existing health problems (for example, by encouraging employees to better adhere to specific medication or self-managed care guidelines).

References:

5 Myths About Flexible Work

Flexibility might be great in theory, but it just doesn’t work for us. We have literally heard this statement hundreds of times over the years. It doesn’t matter what industry we’re talking about — whether it’s tech, government, finance, healthcare, or small business, we’ve heard it. There’s always someone who works from the premise that “there’s no way flexible work policies can work in our organization.”

In reality, flexible work policies can work in any industry. The last twelve months of the pandemic have proven this. In fact, a recent Harvard Business School Online study showed that most professionals have excelled in their jobs while working from home, and 81% either don’t want to go back to the office or would choose a hybrid schedule post-pandemic. It’s important to recognize, however, that flexibility doesn’t always look the same — one size definitely does not fit all.

The Myth of the Five C’s

You may be wondering, “If you can recruit the best candidates, increase your retention rates, improve your profits, and advance innovation by incorporating a relatively simple and inexpensive initiative, then why haven’t more organizations developed flex policies?” This question will be even harder for organizations to ignore after we’ve experienced such a critical test case during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Insight Center Collection

Building Tomorrow’s Workforce

How the best companies identify and manage talent. We believe fear has created stumbling blocks for many organizations when it comes to flexibility. Companies either become frozen by fear or they become focused by fear. It is focus that can help companies pivot during challenging times. In the years that we’ve been working with companies on flexibility, we’ve heard countless excuses and myths for why they have not implemented a flex policy. In fact, the Diversity & Flexibility Alliance has boiled these myths down to the fear of losing the 5 C’s:
  1. Loss of control
  2. Loss of culture
  3. Loss of collaboration
  4. Loss of contribution
  5. Loss of connection

Addressing the Fears

Myth #1: Loss of Control

Executives are often worried that they’ll open Pandora’s box and set a dangerous precedent if they allow some employees to work flexibly. They worry that if they let a few employees work from home, then the office will always be empty and no one will be working. The answer to this is structure and clarity. We can virtually guarantee that any organization that correctly designs and implements their flexibility policy will not lose anything.

To maintain control and smooth operation of your organization, it’s imperative that you set standards and clearly communicate them. Organizations should provide clear guidelines on the types of flexibility offered (for example, remote work, reduced hours, asynchronous schedules, job sharing and/or compressed work weeks) and create a centralized approval process for flexibility to ensure that the system is equitable. It is also helpful to have a calendar system for tracking when and where each team member is working.

You must also commit to training everyone on these standards — from those working a flexible schedule, to those supervising them, to all other coworkers. Education and training will help your team avoid “flex stigma,” where employees are disadvantaged or viewed as less committed due to their flexibility. Training can also help organizations to ensure that successful systems and structures that support flexibility are maintained.

Myth #2: Loss of Culture

While you may not see every employee every day, and you may not be able to have lunch with people every day, culture does not have to suffer with a flexible work initiative. However, it is essential that teams meet either in person or via video conference on a regular basis. At the Alliance, we recommend that companies and firms first define what culture means to their individual organization and then determine how they might maintain this culture in a hybrid or virtual environment.

Many organizations with whom we’ve worked reported that they found creative ways to maintain culture during months of remote working during the pandemic. Many Alliance members organized social functions like virtual exercise classes, cooking classes, happy hours, and team-building exercises to maintain community. Additionally, it’s important to take advantage of the days when everyone is physically present to develop relationships, participate in events, and spend one-to-one time with colleagues.

Myth # 3: Loss of Collaboration

As long as teams that are working a flexible schedule commit to regular meetings and consistent communication, then collaboration will not be compromised. It’s important for all team members to maintain contact (even if it’s online), keep tabs on all projects, and be responsive to emails and phone calls. We always recommend that remote teams also meet in person occasionally to maintain personal contact and relationships.

For collaboration to be successful, remote employees must not be held to a higher standard that those working in the office. Additionally, technology should be used to enhance collaboration. For example, when companies are bringing teams together for brainstorming sessions, virtual breakout rooms can facilitate small group collaboration and help to ensure that all voices are heard. Some organizational leaders have also incorporated regular virtual office hours for unscheduled feedback and informal collaboration.

Myth #4: Loss of Contribution

We have often heard leaders say: “If employees are not physically at their desks in the office, then how will we know that they’re actually working?” But with endless distractions available on computers these days (from online shopping, to Instagram, to Facebook, etc.) you really don’t know what your employees are doing at their desks, even if they are in the office.

In fact, they could be searching for a new job (that offers flexibility!) right before your eyes. It’s important to clearly communicate what is expected of each individual and trust that they will complete the job within the expected timeframe. All employees should be evaluated on the quality of their work and their ability to meet clearly defined performance objectives, rather than on time spent in the office.

Myth #5: Loss of Connection

Technology now enables people to connect at any time of the day in almost any locationMeetings can be held through a myriad of video conferencing applications. Additionally, calendar-sharing apps can help to coordinate team schedules and assist with knowing the availability of team members. Even networking events can now be done virtually. For example, one of our team members created a system for scheduling informal virtual coffee chats between partners and associates to maintain opportunities for networking and mentoring during the pandemic.

It’s important to know what your employees and stakeholders prefer in terms of in-person, hybrid, or virtual-only connection. In a recent survey conducted by BNI of over 2,300 people from around the world, the networking organization asked the participants if they would like their meetings to be: 1) in-person only, 2) online only, or 3) a blend of online and in-person meetings.

One third of the participants surveyed said that they wanted to go back completely to in-person meetings. However, 16% wanted to stick with online meetings only, and almost 51% of the survey respondents were in favor of a blend of meeting both in-person and online. This is a substantial transition from the organizational practice prior to the pandemic, with a full two-thirds of the organization saying that they would prefer some aspect of online meetings to be the norm in the future.

A recent 2021 KPMG CEO Outlook Pulse Survey found that almost half of the CEOs of major corporations around the world do not expect to see a return to “normal” this year. Perhaps a silver lining of the pandemic will be that corporate leaders have overcome their fears of the 5C’s and will now understand how flexibility can benefit their recruitment and retention efforts — not to mention productivity and profitability.

By:Manar Morales & Ivan Misner

Source: 5 Myths About Flexible Work

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Critics:

A flexible work arrangement (FWA) empowers an employee to choose what time they begin to work, where to work, and when they will stop work. The idea is to help manage work-life balance and benefits of FWA can include reduced employee stress and increased overall job satisfaction. On the contrary, some refrain from using their FWA as they fear the lack of visibility can negatively affect their career.

Overall, this type of arrangement has a positive effect on incompatible work/family responsibilities, which can be seen as work affecting family responsibilities or family affecting work responsibilities. FWA is also helpful to those who have a medical condition or an intensive care-giving responsibility, where without FWA, part-time work would be the only option.

Types of flexible work arrangements

References

How To Embrace The Post-Pandemic, Digital-Driven Future Of Work

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Digital will separate the winners from the laggards in the hypercompetitive, post-pandemic business landscape, says Ben Pring, Managing Director of Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work. We undertook a global, multi-industry study to understand how businesses are preparing for this future and here’s what we found.

COVID-19 changed digital from a nice-to-have adjunct to a must-have tool at the core of the enterprise. The pandemic forced businesses to reassess how they strategize and execute their digital ambitions in a world that has migrated online, possibly for good in many areas. Those that did not prioritize digital prior to the pandemic found that procrastination was no longer an option — the digital landscape is hypercompetitive.

The Cognizant Center for the Future of Work (CFoW), working with Oxford Economics, recently surveyed 4,000 C-level executives globally to understand how they are putting digital to use and what they hope to achieve in the coming years.

The CFoW found that digital technologies are key to success in the coming years and uncovered six key steps that all organizations can take to more fruitfully apply to gear-up for the fast unfolding digital future:

  • Scrutinize everything because it’s going to change. From how and where employees work, to how customers are engaged, and which products and services are now viable as customer needs and behaviors evolve rapidly.
  • Make technology a partner in work. Innovations in AI, blockchain, natural language processing, IoT and 5G communications are ushering in decades of change ahead and will drive new levels of functionality and performance.
  • Build new workflows to reach new performance thresholds. The most predictable, rote and repetitive activities need to be handed off to software, while humans specialize in using judgment, creativity and language.
  • Make digital competency the prime competency for everyone. No matter what type of work needs to be done, it must have a digital component. Levels of digital literacy need to be built out even among non-technologists, including specialized skills.
  • Begin a skills renaissance. Digital skills such as big data specialists, process automation experts, security analysts, etc. aren’t easy to acquire. To overcome skills shortages, organizations will need to work harder to retain and engage workers.
  • Employees want jobs, but they also want meaning from jobs. How can businesses use intelligent algorithms to take increasing proportions of tasks off workers’ plates, allowing them to spend their time creating value? This search for meaning stretches beyond the individual tasks of the job to what the organization itself stands for.

Here are a few key findings from our research:

Redesigning the workplace is just the beginning: The virus will force enterprises to ask more strategic questions.

A mesh of machine emerges: While IoT is beginning to take hold, few respondents have piloted 5G projects. But over time , the mesh of machines created by IoT and 5G will serve as the foundation for news levels of functionality and possibility.

The 3As-AI , automation and analytics are the engines of digitization: To make the future of work happen, the 3As are emerging as a sophisticated and complex set of tools more deeply embedded in processes.

To learn more, read our whitepaper “The Work Ahead: Digital First (to Last)” or see the full Work Ahead study series.

Ben Pring leads Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work and is a coauthor of the books Monster: A Tough Love Letter On Taming The Machines That Rule Our Jobs, Lives, and Future, What To Do When Machines Do Everything and Code Halos: How the Digital Lives of People, Things, and Organizations Are Changing the Rules of Business. In 2018, he was a Bilderberg Meeting participant. He previously spent 15 years with Gartner as a senior industry analyst, researching and advising on areas such as cloud computing and global sourcing. He can be reached at Benjamin.Pring@cognizant.com

Source: How To Embrace The Post-Pandemic, Digital-Driven Future Of Work

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Critics:

Digitalization  is the adoption of digital technology to transform services or businesses, through replacing non-digital or manual processes with digital processes or replacing older digital technology with newer digital technology. Digital solutions may enable – in addition to efficiency via automation – new types of innovation and creativity, rather than simply enhancing and supporting traditional methods.

One aspect of digital transformation is the concept of ‘going paperless‘ or reaching a ‘digital business maturity’ affecting both individual businesses and whole segments of society, such as government,mass communications,art, health care, and science.

Digital transformation is not proceeding at the same pace everywhere. According to the McKinsey Global Institute‘s 2016 Industry Digitization Index, Europe is currently operating at 12% of its digital potential, while the United States is operating at 18%. Within Europe, Germany operates at 10% of its digital potential, while the United Kingdom is almost on par with the United States at 17%.

One example of digital transformation is the use of cloud computing. This reduces reliance on user-owned hardware and increases reliance on subscription-based cloud services. Some of these digital solutions enhance capabilities of traditional software products (e.g. Microsoft Office compared to Office 365) while others are entirely cloud based (e.g. Google Docs).

As the companies providing the services are guaranteed of regular (usually monthly) recurring revenue from subscriptions, they are able to finance ongoing development with reduced risk (historically most software companies derived the majority of their revenue from users upgrading, and had to invest upfront in developing sufficient new features and benefits to encourage users to upgrade), and delivering more frequent updates often using forms of agile software development internally. This subscription model also reduces software piracy, which is a major benefit to the vendor.

Unlike digitization, digitalization is the ‘organizational process’ or ‘business process’ of the technologically-induced change within industries, organizations, markets and branches. Digitalization of manufacturing industries has enabled new production processes and much of the phenomena today known as the Internet of Things, Industrial Internet, Industry 4.0, machine to machine communication, artificial intelligence and machine vision.

Digitalization of business and organizations has induced new business models (such as freemium), new eGovernment services, electronic payment, office automation and paperless office processes, using technologies such as smart phones, web applications, cloud services, electronic identification, blockchain, smart contracts and cryptocurrencies, and also business intelligence using Big Data. Digitalization of education has induced e-learning and Mooc courses.

See also

 

Married to the Job: How a Long-Hours Working Culture Keeps People Single and Lonely

illustration of person with head on their desk at work, unable to think clearly

Laura Hancock started practising yoga when she worked for a charity. It was a job that involved long hours and caused a lot of anxiety. Yoga was her counterbalance. “It saved my life, in a way,” she says.

Yoga brought her a sense of peace and started her journey of self-inquiry; eventually, she decided to bring those benefits to others by becoming a yoga teacher. She studied for more than eight years before qualifying. That was about 10 years ago; since then, she has been teaching in Oxford, her home town.

At first, the work felt like a privilege, even though she was working a lot and not earning much. “There was a sense that, if you gave it your all and you did it with integrity and love and all those things, then it would eventually work out for you.”

But recently she had a moment of realisation. “I can’t afford my rent, I have no savings, I have no partner, I have no family. I’m 38 and most of my friends have families; they’re buying houses,” she says. “There is a lot of grief around that. I feel like I’ve just landed on Earth, like a hard crash on to the ground, and am looking around and feeling quite lonely.”

Hancock is one of the many people in recent years to recognise that they have devoted themselves to their work and neglected everything else that might give their life meaning. For workers across many sectors, long, irregular hours, emotional demands and sometimes low rates of pay mean it is increasingly hard to have a life outside of work – and particularly hard to sustain relationships.

Long before Covid locked us all in our homes, alone or otherwise, the evidence was pointing out repeatedly that loneliness and singledom are endemic in this phase of capitalism. Fewer people are marrying and those who are are doing so later; we are having less sex. A 2018 study found that 2.4 million adults in Britain “suffer from chronic loneliness”. Another projection found that nearly one in seven people in the UK could be living alone by 2039 and that those living alone are less financially secure.

For Hancock, turning her yoga practice into her career meant giving up much of her social life. She was “knackered” at the end of a long day of practice and teaching – and the expectation that she would continue her education through pricey retreats meant, at times, that she was spending more than she was making. It was at the end of a four-hour workshop in a local church in 2018 that the penny dropped. A student came up to her and said: “You are not well. We need to go to the doctor.”

Her GP found infections in her ear and her chest. She spent seven weeks recovering in bed, which gave her a lot of time, alone at home, to reconsider her career and face the reality of exactly how vulnerable she was.

Lauren Smith*, 34, a teacher in the west of England, was given a warning by a colleague before she applied for her postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE). “It’s going to be the most intense year of your life,” they said. At the time, she thought she was ready for it, but it took its toll on her relationship. “I remember coming home and just … not even being able to talk to him.”

Things did not improve when she started working as a teacher. “There’s this culture in education where it’s almost competitive about how much you work,” she says. The social relationships at school become almost a substitute for a personal life; she briefly dated another teacher. However, apart from “the odd fling here or there”, she says, “in terms of actually dating, I find that my enthusiasm or my energy for it …” She trails off.

The strain on their personal lives has made Smith and Hancock look much more closely at the sustainability of their working lives. Hancock is one of the founding members of the new yoga teachers’ union, a branch of the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), the union representing gig economy workers and those in traditionally non-unionised workplaces. Smith is active in the National Education Union, but is considering a career change. “The demands on teachers have just increased so much and, with the funding cuts, I’m now doing the job of three people,” she says.

“Everything else you love about your job has been pushed to the wayside and it’s all about those exam results,” says Smith. The number one thing she would like “would be more planning time in my job. Maybe I could have one less class, which is 30 kids’ worth of data that I don’t have to do and it means I can put my mental energy into the students themselves and have the time and the headspace to do other things.”

It is not that she is hanging everything on the hope of a romantic relationship – and she does not want children – but nevertheless Smith longs for time and energy to devote to the people she cares about, rather than her job. “In the nine years that I have been a teacher, it has got harder and harder. If things don’t change, I can’t see myself staying in this job beyond two years from now.”

If work is getting in the way of our relationships, it is not an equally distributed problem. The decline in marriage rates “is a class-based affair”, say the law professors Naomi Cahn and June Carbone, the authors of the book Marriage Markets: How Inequality Is Remaking the American Family. The well-off are more likely to marry and have more stable families – and the advantages of this family structure are conferred on their offspring. For those in a more precarious financial situation, it can often be easier to stay single.

Economic stability provides “a better foundation for loyalty, one based on relationship satisfaction and happiness rather than economic dependency or need”, found the academics Pilar Gonalons-Pons and David Calnitsky when they studied the impact of an experiment with universal basic income in Canada. If we were not so worried about paying the bills, perhaps we would have the time and mental space for better relationships.

In an increasingly atomised world, being in a couple is how most people have access to care and love. The status of being partnerless, or, as the writer Caleb Luna has put it, being “singled” – an active process that means single people are denied affection or care because they are reserved for people in couples – can leave many people without life-sustaining care. As Luna writes, the culture of “self-love”, in which we are encouraged to love, support and sustain ourselves, leaves out those for whom this is not a choice.

Care is overwhelmingly still provided by partners in a romantic couple or other family members: in the UK, 6.5 million people – one in eight adults – provide care for a sick or disabled family member or partner. The charity Carers UK estimates that, during the pandemic in 2020, 13.6 million people were carers. What happens to those, however, without partners or family members to provide care? It becomes someone’s job – a job that can end up placing enormous stress on the personal life of whoever is doing it.

Care is often outsourced to paid workers – many of whom are immigrants – some of whom have left their own partners and children behind in order to go elsewhere for work, says Prof Laura Briggs, of the women, gender and sexuality studies department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The harsh crackdowns on migration to the US and the UK have left these workers in a uniquely vulnerable position. They would “work for almost any wage, no matter how low, to support family and household members back home, without the entanglements that come with dependents who are physically present, such as being late to work after a child’s doctor’s appointment, say, or the sick days that children or elders have so many of,” wrote Briggs in her 2017 book How All Politics Became Reproductive Politics. In other words, with their family far away, the worker is free to devote all their time – and their care – to their employer.

It is not just care work that is blending the boundaries between people’s work lives and personal lives. In many sectors, offices have been designed to look, feel and act like a home, to keep employees there for longer – with free food available 24/7, areas to rest and play with Lego, office pets, informal dress codes and even showers to create a feeling that work is a “family”.

When I met Karn Bianco while I was researching my book on how work is increasingly taking over our lives, he was a freelance computer game programmer who had tired of the long hours. “Your life became just work,” he said. “You would go in at 9am and would work through until 10 or 11 at night sometimes – you could get an evening meal there.” It was fine for a while, he said. “When I was an intern, I was single, I knew I was only in that desk for a year. I had no responsibilities, no dependents.”

But as Bianco, who is now 31 and living in Glasgow, got older and entered into a relationship, it became impossible to deal with. “I even tried to start coups of sorts,” he said, trying to convince his colleagues to walk out en masse at 5pm on the dot. But it did not take, so he was stuck trying to improve his own conditions, going home at 5pm on his own – something that was possible, he noted, only because he had worked his way up the ladder. Eventually, Bianco went freelance, then left the industry entirely.

Bianco is one of the founding members of the gaming industry branch of the IWGB, which is fighting the long hours in the sector. Traditionally, there was a crunch time, when, just before a product launch, programmers were expected to put in 100-hour weeks with no extra pay. Now, as games are connected to the internet and consumers expect constant updates, crunch time is pretty much all the time. “They try to instil that feeling of: ‘You have to do this for the family [company],’ rather than: ‘This is a transaction. You pay me and I work,’” said Austin Kelmore, 40, when I met him along with Bianco.

But what happens when the “family” is gone and the workers are left on their own? Layoffs are common in the games industry – so common that one observer created a website to track them. (In 2020, there were an estimated 2,090 job losses as part of mass redundancies in the gaming industry.) When Kelmore was laid off, his partner’s income was a lifesaver, but it made him think: ‘Do I want to do games any more?’ He is still in the industry and active in the union working against what he says is a systematic issue with work-life balance. “Without unions, we had no idea what our rights were,” Bianco says. “We were working illegal hours and didn’t even know it. Most of my time at home during some of those weeks was just sleeping.”

The pandemic, of course, has made many people face up to loneliness in a way they would not have done in the pre-lockdown world. One-third of women and one-fifth of men report feeling lonely or isolated in this period.

Ruth Jones* trained as a librarian in Canada and moved around from job to job – nearly once a year for 14 years. “Finding work, and especially having to take whatever work I can get, has definitely been a factor in why I haven’t dated much at 31,” she says via email. “How do you date someone wholeheartedly knowing that, at some point in a year, max, you’re going to have to make a decision about someone taking or not taking a job, being split up, doing long distance?”

A chronic illness means that, recently, she has been out of the workplace, stuck at home. She has realised the way in which our obsession with work is entangled with our romantic relationships. On dating apps and sites, “most people identify strongly with their jobs”, she says. Where does this leave someone who is unable to work long-term? “At a minimum, I am supposed to feel guilty for being unproductive, useless – and live a frugal, monk-like life,” she says.

She does not mind that she might not be able physically to do the same things as a potential partner, but she often finds that they do, especially as the apps are designed to pass judgment on people immediately. All of this means it feels impossible to find someone with whom to connect. “I feel like I’m not looking for a unicorn, I’m looking for a gold Pegasus.”

The apps often feel like another job to take on, says Smith. She will click on the dating site, flick through some profiles, maybe match with someone and exchange a couple of messages. Then a week of teaching goes by in a blur and, she says: “You have a look and you’ve missed the boat.” She often ends up deciding to spend her spare time with friends, or catching up on rest. “It just feels like another admin task: ‘Ugh, I’ve got to reply to another email now. I’ve got to put some data into a form.’” And, of course, those dating apps are big business, profiting from workers being kept single by their jobs. In 2021, the founder of the dating app Bumble was lauded as the “world’s youngest self-made woman billionaire”.

Hancock, who works in a deeply solitary industry, has found the process of organising with her union enormously helpful. “I remember being in this room and hearing so many different people from different industries talking and realising that we shared so much,” she says. “I wasn’t alone.”

It is through the union that she hopes to be able to change not just her own situation, but also the industry. After all, as the games workers learned, going home early by yourself – or leaving the industry – might be a temporary solution, but the real challenge is ending the culture of overwork. Perhaps it is time to revisit the original wants of International Workers’ Day, which called for the day to be split into eight-hour chunks: for work, for rest and time for “what we will”, whether that is romance, family, friends or otherwise.

By: Sarah Jaffe

Source: Married to the Job: How a Long-Hours Working Culture Keeps People Single and Lonely

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References

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