Magazine

Viewpoint: Why do people waste so much time at the office?

Man leans back in cubicle

The workplace is where people go to work. But much of the day is increasingly padded out with less productive activities, writes Peter Fleming.

A few years ago a disturbing story appeared in the media that seemed to perfectly capture the contemporary experience of work and its ever increasing grip over our lives: "Man Dies at Office Desk - Nobody Notices for Five Days".

The case was unnerving for one reason mainly. People die all the time, but usually we notice. Are things so bad in the modern workplace that we can no longer tell the difference between the living and the dead?

Of course, the story turned out to be a hoax. An urban myth.

As it happens, each country has its own variation that still fools people when they periodically appear. In the US the dead person is a publisher. In other countries, a management consultant.

We might even embellish the story ourselves. Perhaps the dead accountant not only went unnoticed for five days but was rewarded with a promotion for all the extra hours and loyalty, possibly making vice president. In all variants of the myth the worker is never a woman which is interesting for its own reasons.

Isn't it strange that so many of us who encounter this apocryphal story genuinely shrug and mumble "Yeah, that's about right"?

Why does it resonate so well with our experiences of employment today? A number of reasons might be behind this.

First, it reminds us that the otherwise crazy idea of working non-stop for hours or even days on end has quietly become the new normal. Behaviour that our grandparents would have deemed insane is now rather pedestrian.

The average British worker spends 36 days a year answering work emails. London workers in particular receive close to 9,000 emails each year. As a result, work spills over into private time. One recent survey revealed that 80% of employers consider it perfectly acceptable to contact their employees outside business hours.

And then there's the commute. British workers waste 18 months of their lives commuting, which is often expensive and stressful.

All of this work comes at cost. Job-related illness, for example, is a growing problem in the UK and elsewhere, exacerbated by stress and more of us being overwhelmed by the "to do" list.

Making matters worse, in times of recession we are more willing to put up with horrible workplace environments, which adds to the pent-up frustration. A recent study found that job burnout is more adverse to your health than chain smoking.

Only in this context could we ever see accounts of having "worked to death" being reported in the corporate sector, as was the case with the Bank of America intern, Moritz Erhardt in 2013. He died of an epileptic seizure after working 72 hours straight. And let's not even mention the new phenomenon of work-inspired suicides that has followed in the long wake of the 2008 financial crisis.

But the "Man Died at Desk and Nobody Noticed" urban myth strikes a chord for another and more depressing reason. Yes, the office should have noticed the man was dead. Five days is a long time. But they also ought to have noticed that his work wasn't actually getting done.

Unfortunately, this is not how the modern workplace functions today. Take those 36 days spent on email. It would be simply impossible to fill every minute online with only productive work. The same goes for the long hours put in at the office.

Apart from getting the actual task done, which is typically completed in short bursts, there is also a good deal of messing about, chatting, paying the bills, surfing the net, daydreaming and waiting for the day to finish. Most importantly, much of our day is spent busy being busy rather than doing things that are socially useful.

This gives contemporary employment something of a ceremonial feel about it. Not only are we working more now than ever (or searching for it if unemployed) but a good deal of it is unnecessary.

We are obliged to look like a worker as much as actually be one, whether we are working in Poundland for nothing (as part of the UK government's back to work programme) or employed in high finance.

A recent study of overworked management consultants in the US found that 35% employed in this occupation actually "faked" an 80-hour work week. For various reasons these individuals pretended to sacrifice themselves on the altar of work and still got everything done.

In this respect, entire occupations might be considered phoney - from life coaches to "atmosphere co-ordinators" (people hired to create a party vibe in bars) to "chief learning officers" in the corporate world. For those economists trying to figure out the present "productivity puzzle" in the UK, best start looking here.


What is productivity?

  • Productivity measures how much each employee makes over a period of time
  • Calculated by dividing total output by the number of workers - if a factory employing 50 staff produces 1000 tables a day, then the productivity of each worker is: 1,000 tables/50 staff = 20 tables

Does Britain have a productivity problem? (BBC News Online, 21 May)


None of this is to say there aren't many of us working hard doing important things that society depends upon. But this sheer amount of time spent at work is totally disproportionate to the vital tasks that need to be achieved. Disconnected too from the pay we receive for doing them.

In other words, work has become ritualised and detached from the practical things it was invented to accomplish.

Why do we work? The obvious answer is "to live". But it's not our actual job - giving a lecture, selling a car, nursing a patient or flying a passenger jet - that directly secures our life conditions.

For sure, most occupations in the West have drifted far away from the baseline of biological self-preservation. A job simply grants us access to man-made vouchers we call money. We then redeem these so we can then purchase life.

How many vouchers we obtain and what we have to do to get them is the political question par excellence under neoliberal capitalism. But it's this growing disconnect between labour as a biological/social requirement versus work as a cultural artefact that has seen it take on a life of its own, spiralling out of control, taking over everything else.

Herein lies the work paradox. At the very moment it is glorified as the highest civic virtue (on both the political left and right) it is drying up at an unprecedented rate.

Like it or not we are moving into a post-work future. According to some estimates, half the eligible global workforce is currently unemployed.

Technical innovations are exponentially automating routine manual labour and now cognitive work too. Our work-centric society is swiftly becoming obsolete. No matter how much governments bribe the business sector with tax breaks and subsidies to keep people employed in needless jobs, the necessity of work is rapidly disappearing.

As a society we probably secretly know all of this. But we have no idea what to do next.

Almost all of our institutions have been built around the mythology of work. Our very sense of self-worth is based upon it. It is almost taboo to even question work.

Regardless, the possibility of a jobless future might soon be a reality. It's up to us to decide whether this future is going to be a nasty nightmare (involving corpses frozen at their desks) or a beautiful paradise of play.


More from the Magazine

Many people might think of office-bound life as a modern phenomenon, but there's a long history of people chained to their desks, explains Lucy Kellaway.

How the office was invented (July 2013)


Peter Fleming is the author of The Mythology of Work: How Capitalism Persists Despite Itself.

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.