A Working Hypothesis

by NJ McGarrigle

Having read Sarah Bakewell’s excellent biography of the French philosopher Montaigne: ‘How To Live’, I wondered how we, as a somewhat frazzled nation, could do with considering his stoic advice: ‘We should have a wife, children, goods, and above all health, if we can; but we must not bind ourselves to them so strongly that our happiness depends on them.

‘We must reserve a back shop all our own, entirely free, in which to establish our real liberty and our principal retreat and solitude. Here we must talk and laugh as if without wife, without children, without possessions, so that when the time comes to lose them, it will be nothing new for us to do without them.’

Irish people are facing up to loss on many levels right now and we are uncertain, quite naturally, what the right response should be. Now might be a good time for us to ‘build a little room behind the shop’, just for ourselves, to help get us through this difficult period.

Here, we could find the time and necessary solitude to not only re-evaluate what is important to us, but to also flip the negativities of the downturn to our benefit.  Montaigne was not saying that we should withdraw from society or the family unit as such, but he talked about the need to protect oneself against the pain that would come if a person lost everything – and how having such a retreat could help someone find their ‘real liberty’ if this happened.

Desk-bound blues

Most of us are doing less now but perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. The Celtic Tiger made us all want to be seen as being busy, to reflect to society how well we were doing and for our feelings of self-worth.  Many of us worked long hours and allowed work to eat into our own time after leaving the office: in other words, we sacrificed our liberty. We celebrated being part of the largest self-regulation system mankind has invented thus far: capitalism. Workaholics are revered in the business world, despite the condition being an addiction, and we all felt the need to be the same.

However, having more time now may be good for us and our employers could reap the benefits of a reduced working week too.  Those of us who have held on to our jobs are in many cases adapting to four or three-day weeks, with the hope of riding out the storm. But these changes should not always be considered in a negative light; with a little creative thinking, they could prove advantageous.

Firstly, it would allow us to reclaim our weekends. The most frequent complaint of the modern worker is they do not have enough time to themselves. Technology was supposed to make our lives easier but instead it has added new constraints on the one commodity we cannot buy back or find enough of: time.

A recent survey of 4,000 workers in the UK found that the majority, on average, don’t unwind until 12.38am on Saturday night and are thinking about work again by 3.55pm on Sunday afternoon. Over half of the workers were also “too tired” to enjoy the weekend anyway. In that case, having a three or four-day working week means that we get time to unwind and return to work properly recharged for the new week ahead.

Understandably, many workers may worry that a reduction in hours will see a dramatic drop in income and there is no getting around that. Yet the reduction may not be as severe as most people think when we factor in record-high fuel prices, tolls/travel costs, lunches, coffees etc and the hefty childcare fees most working people are forced to pay these days.  Instead, what we gain is something we cannot put a price on: more time with our children and partners, more time doing things we enjoy and most importantly, more time for ourselves.

Winston Churchill talked about a ‘four-day week and then three days of fun’. Employers will counter this by saying that if we all had reduced working weeks then production would suffer and many services would come to a standstill. But this is simply not true.

Last year the New Economic Foundation came to the conclusion that a 21-hour working week would increase workers’ productivity and reduce power consumption, which would see large financial savings made by employers, plus added kudos for environmental concern. This type of working week would also create more jobs – as effectively there would be two jobs where now there is only one – which would cut unemployment figures and consequently reduce the social welfare bill. Another knock-on effect would see a fairer distribution of wealth and as a result more money would flow evenly into the economy to provide growth: an increased number of people having disposable income means they will spend more readily in the knowledge of being in employment.

We should be looking for a fairer balance between time spent in the office and at home – that is what will make us more contented and in turn more productive. Think of the times you’ve had to solve a work problem and the solutions come when you are away from the desk: in the shower, driving, washing dishes, or sitting in the park.  Sometimes I wonder if employers, having read the quote from the writer Henry Miller, are fearful of giving workers too much time to themselves. Miller once said: ‘I think if I had two or three quiet days of just sheer thinking I’d upset everything… I ought to go to the office one day and blow out my boss’s brains.’ Surely we can work out a better solution.


  • Article first appeared in the Irish Times