Tag Archives: work

Reimagining the revolution

Imagine what the industrial revolution would have been like around the world if the aims had been different. Imagine if the developing technology had been all about freeing people from drudgery and improving their quality of life. Not children working twelve hour shifts in factories, not working humans routinely maimed and killed by machines, and not squalid slums for workers to live in. Imagine if the industrial revolution had been all about making life better for everyone.

Of course with the kind of technology we had, this would have been difficult. The city smogs were caused by air pollution from coal burning industries. The whole thing depended on human lives sacrificed for coal, sacrificed for building projects, cut short by horrific illness caused by exposure to pollutants. Around the world, industrial revolution has meant a dramatic plummet in quality of life for the working poor.

What if that wasn’t inevitable? What if that wasn’t progress? What if the ‘gains’ made for the already rich and comfortable weren’t actually worth the price so many paid for it? 

If progress meant better quality of life, we wouldn’t have people living in poverty. No one would have to choose between heating and eating. We have the resources to take care of everyone, but not the political will. What if we saw no virtue or value in tedious jobs and cheerfully handed those over to the machines to give everyone more time to live rich, full and rewarding lives? What if we didn’t create an impoverished underclass who could then be pressured into working miserably in order to barely survive? 

We could have done that with the first industrial revolution. New technology could have been harnessed to serve the common good, not the profits of the few. This is always an option, and never the one that gets priority. Meanwhile we celebrate and idolise the wealth that costs most of us, and the planet an unbearable amount.

What if we stopped imagining that work is the key to human existence, and started considering some alternative ways of thinking about ourselves?


Who will do the work?

Who will do the work if we just give people enough money to live on? It’s a question I see all too often around any kind of suggestion that welfare support should not leave people in abject misery.

No one imagines that people who would otherwise have been priests, musicians, doctors, politicians, teachers, actors, CEOs and so forth would just stay at home doing nothing if decent benefits were available. We recognise that some jobs have intrinsic value. Also no one imagines people would be motivated not to go after high paying jobs if offered adequate out-of-work support.

Who will do the awful work if they aren’t frightened into it by the greater horrors of abject poverty? Who will tolerate the ten and twelve hour shifts at minimum wage if the alternative isn’t worse? How do we make people accept tedious, dead end work where they will be treated with contempt? How do we make it attractive to be in physical pain because of the demands of the job? That’s what’s really going on when we suggest that adequate benefits might discourage people from seeking jobs. 

The alternative of course would be to make sure all jobs provide a living wage. We could reconsider shift lengths, and night work and other health-destroying job issues. We could try and reduce commutes and let more people work from home. If work was interesting, nicer, better paid, more rewarding, then being on benefits would be less attractive. But, how are we to extract value for the shareholders if we don’t exploit the workers? How can we maintain the hugely inflated salaries of the management if we don’t keep the cleaners in poverty? 

If we make being out of work as unpleasant and hazardous as possible, there’s every incentive for people to take any job they can get, no matter how awful. If, on the other hand, we assume that people have a right to decent standards of living, and that working yourself to death for a pittance isn’t acceptable, we create a situation in which companies have to make jobs more attractive – better pay, better hours, decent breaks, actual perks. 

A weak welfare state enables exploitation and puts the profits of the few ahead of the needs of the many. Decent welfare support pushes up standards, which in turn will reduce the number of people made ill by work, which is cheaper for the state. What if we stop using our tax money to facilitate exploitation, and use it more compassionately and efficiently to keep people healthier and improve quality of life for everyone? 


Deep Work

This year I’ve radically changed how I work. Apparently there are terms for this! I’ve moved from a life dominated by shallow work, to one dominated by deep work and I’m slowly wrangling with the implications. 

Shallow work doesn’t take a vast amount of mental energy or creativity. I’ve spent many years cranking out social media content for money – which required concentration, but I can’t say was ever satisfying. It’s the kind of work that is never finished, there’s no closure on it, no markable points of achievement.

Deep work involves focus, commitment, and intensity. Over the last few months this has come to dominate my working time as I’m mostly writing and colouring. These are tasks that require a lot of concentration and attention. I’ve always had a good attention span, I can usually focus for an hour or more.

Shallow work was unsatisfying and I did get tired from it, and left feeling that I had no energy for anything more substantial. Even so, I could do far more of it in a day than I can of the deeper stuff. To be in a state of intense focus for three or four hours is about as much as I can do. I have to take more breaks. I have to be much more careful about feeding my brain with things that sustain it. I have to have more rest time. It is much more satisfying work, but it takes a toll.

There are balances to strike, clearly. I’m slowly finding out what I can sustain from day to day, and what I need to do to support myself if I’m working at high levels of intensity. I have to be more alert to body wellness, to food, to hydration, and the overall shape of my working week. I have to watch for my limits, because I can end up so tired that I can’t do anything at all, which means I can’t do anything restorative, which rapidly compromises my ability to show up for the deeper work.

I’ve worked all kinds of jobs along the way – often part time and alongside trying to work creatively. The marketing, social media work required a lot of attention and tracking information, but that’s a very different way of using my brain. When I’m pushing my thinking capacity to its limits in multiple ways in a day, that impacts on my whole life. I feel differently about myself. On the whole, it’s a better way to be, but I can’t model it on the norms of regular employment, office work, retail, front of house or any of the other kinds of stuff I’ve been doing. I can’t work long hours at high levels of intensity, it’s not sustainable. I’m having to rethink my life a bit to try and better accommodate these shifts.

I think my ideal life would involve a few hours of deep work each day, and a few hours of physical work – I have gardening fantasies. I think being able to ground myself in more practical things while my brain does what it does between bouts of more intense thinking, would suit me well. In the meantime, there are craft projects, and the ongoing quest for better balance.


Escaping clock time

Clock time is very much a feature of industrialisation. It goes with shift work, and the need to have workers in the right place at the right time. Regular working life gives us little to no scope for improvisation, flexibility, time off when ill or when needing things. For most of human history, we haven’t had clocks. We’ve had sun time, and operated in small enough communities that organising without clocks has been just fine. It’s notable that industrial towns and cities tend to have clock towers so that people too poor to have their own watches would know the time.

When the schools closed in 2020 for the pandemic, we no longer needed alarm clocks. Both Tom and I are self employed and can work when we choose. With study moving online, James’s start time was a lot later – he’d been getting to school by bicycle and needed to get up early for that. Suddenly we had a lot more flexibility. This was as well because pandemic stress played havoc with my ability to sleep. I slept when I could, and got up when I couldn’t sleep, and paid little attention to the clock.

We’ve stayed that way. James has continued studying from home and is old enough not to need any help with that. He’s also not faced with an early morning bike ride, so does not need a hearty breakfast, so we can leave him to it. In practice I mostly still get up early, but it’s nice not having to.

Last winter was the first winter I can remember of being free to wake with the light. It was lovely, soothing and restorative. I find winter difficult. Not having to get up in the dark helped me emotionally.

It’s also great having the freedom to sleep in a bit if I’ve had a bad night. I take sleep seriously, I go to bed at sensible times, I drink soothing tea, I am mindful of screen use and over stimulation etc. But, sometimes I get hit by insomnia. Sometimes the anxiety gets me, or the depression, or the menopausal weird night events – sometimes all of these things together, which means failing at sleep. The freedom to wake when I do has brought a lot of health benefits and greatly reduced my stress. Insomnia is much worse when you know how many hours you have left when you could sleep and you can see the next day falling apart before you’ve even got to it. The freedom to sleep in changes everything.

I’m not convinced that the way we currently organise our lives is necessary. With increased automation, we aren’t going to need people in factories working to clock time. Clearly there are some jobs – medical and emergency especially – where you have to be able to count on other people being there. But what if other work and activities were organised in more flexible ways? What if we had more scope to negotiate, or respond to the situation on the day? It would be a much kinder way of interacting. It would be interesting to see how much work doesn’t really depend on clock time, because my suspicion is that many things could be done more flexibly and much more comfortably than they currently are.


Resilience and Efficiency

Efficiency tends to make people think of saving money and doing the most for least. The trouble with supposedly ‘efficient’ systems is they don’t have any slack in them, so as soon as there’s a problem or a setback, there’s trouble.

In workplaces this can mean having to work overtime if something goes wrong with a project or someone is ill. In healthcare it means not having the beds or staff to deal with something out of the ordinary. Like a pandemic. In education it can mean things like teachers not having the time to comfortably adapt to changes – as we’ve seen in the last year. In the short term, this kind of efficiency can seem cost effective. As soon as circumstances change, it doesn’t work and the cost can be high.

Resilience means being able to adapt. It means being able to afford to take time off when you’re ill, and not having to work people to exhaustion to make up the gap. Resilient approaches are also kinder, gentler ways of working. It assumes you should have options and scope for flexibility and that maybe short term profit isn’t always the most important thing. Assuming you’ll need the option to cope is a good idea, rather than just demanding more from people in times of difficulty.

Efficiency can also result in the normalising of crisis. You set something up so that it is running at capacity. You know perfectly well that things never run smoothly all the time, so the whole approach assumes that the answer it to pile on more pressure in times of difficulty. Once things become difficult, crisis becomes normal because there’s really no room for recovery or getting back on top of things This leads to people always having to work overtime, feeling constantly pressured to skip breaks,  and other such toxic things. Quality of life is undermined by work systems that are designed in this way. What is put forward as efficient can often turn out to be exploitative.

Other kinds of efficient systems require people to work like machines, operating at rates that leave no time for being sociable, or thinking about anything, or anything else human. We shouldn’t be asking people to work like machines – and in the long run this also breaks people, which isn’t efficient for us as a society. It certainly isn’t resilient, either.

The idea of resilience may be a good way to counter toxic narratives around efficiency. Resilience suggests pragmatism. If people aren’t prepared to treat other people kindly, they might be prepared to consider that resilience is a better strategy than short term efficiency.


Taking a leap of faith

I was really ill over the winter – lots of pain, and stiffness, no energy, regular run ins with anxiety and deep depression. It was a hard time, and it made me take a serious look at my life. For some years now, the majority of my work hasn’t been creative. I’m not making most of my living as a professional Druid, either – these are not things that tend to pay anyone enough to live on. I’ve done all kinds of jobs – usually many small jobs all at the same time. In recent years I’ve been doing a lot of social media work.

I’m good at social media work and I genuinely like helping people. But, it is one of the most tedious things imaginable, and you can’t afford to be careless or complacent about it. Each twitter post is an exercise in tone, brand identity, PR… and when you’ve got multiple accounts, identities brands to keep track of, that takes a lot of thinking. And by December, I was very, very tired because of that.

I put down the work that required most effort for least personal gain. Those were hard choices. For self employed people, putting down a paying gig is always going to be uneasy at best. But, I was getting too ill to work, and that’s a bigger risk. I took time off, I rested a lot, and I thought about things.

Creative work is almost always uncertain. You mostly don’t know where the next gigs are coming from. Pay is erratic. Big projects that might pay better take time, energy and attention. So there’s a gamble in investing the time in doing a more substantial body of work that you think you can sell, because you might have to turn down other paying work to do it. Also, creative people are not machines. Ideas don’t flow without time to think, without space for inspiration. Creating and doing a day job and doing the things that support and sustain your creativity and dealing with household stuff and trying to be healthy and and and… The juggling is hard.

There may be some large, interesting and well paid creative jobs out there with my name on. I may be able to make the leap from exhausted and ill part time creative to being a person with decent creative jobs and a decent quality of life. So I took the leap of faith and I made the life changes that would give me a shot at those bigger and more exciting things. I started making the moves to get into the right position so that if any or all of this starts to move, I can go for it.

We’ve landed an American publisher for the Hopeless Maine graphic novels. That alone won’t change everything, but it certainly helps. There’s a kickstarter on the go at the moment, which may be of interest if you’re in America… https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/hopelessmaine/hopeless-maine-the-graphic-novel-by-tom-and-nimue-brown

It could be a very interesting year.


What if we worked less?

The idea of four day working weeks is something many people have considered, and some businesses have even tried. How different would our lives be if we could afford to only work four days a week? What would change for us? How would we be impacted by other people working less?

Larger businesses can undoubtedly afford to pay workers the same money for four day weeks, and take on more workers to fill the gap. This would improve employment rates. In any sizeable business, there are management people and shareholders making a profit out of the work being done. A bit less money for them and a bit more investment in the people doing the work would make this possible. What evidence there is from people trying four day weeks is that you get a more motivated, healthier and more productive workforce, so it’s not really much of a sacrifice for the would-be profit makers.

I’m self employed so there’s no company that could treat me better than it does. But, if more people had more time off, I would benefit. More books would be read and more people would have energy to invest in leisure, which would probably improve my situation in turn.

More time off means having the scope to do more than just rest, recover and sort out your domestic stuff. More time off means more opportunity to enrich your life. What would you do with that extra day? You might study, or volunteer. You might invest more time in your physical health, or develop hobbies and skills that enrich your life. You’d have more time to meditate, contemplate, get outside, maybe grow your own food. Perhaps some of the less sustainable things you have to do out of time poverty could be changed.

How much of your life is currently organised around being time poor and tired from work? How much time do you even get to think about how you are living day to day? What would change if the people around you had more spare time? What would become available, emotionally and socially that isn’t possible at the moment? Who would you spend more time with?

What would it do to the economy if there was far more employment available, and people also had far more time to enjoy themselves? How would our spending choices change? What would happen to our towns, our communal spaces, and our green spaces if we had more time to use and appreciate them?

Poverty is stressful. Open up more working options, and many people would be in a far better state psychologically. Overwork has long been identified as a source of mental health problems. Stress and exhaustion make us sick, and exacerbate any illnesses we have. How much more well would we all be with a four day working week?

How would education change if a four day week was normal? How much more flexible could we make it, how many more options might people of all ages have around opportunities to learn and develop?

Asking what if we worked less also means considering some fundamental questions about what our lives are for and who they should benefit. Having more time for ourselves would make our lives much more about our own happiness and wellbeing, and that would be a truly radical shift.


Time out

Rather excitingly, I’m poised to have a week off. I didn’t manage to take a whole week off at any point in 2020 – one of the problems with the kind of work I do is that I have to do all the same work ahead of time to get a week off, which is arduous and I don’t always have the energy for it.

I’m in the process of changing how I work. My aim is to have my work life be less exhausting in the first place. I’m also looking at things I can do to reduce pain and improve sleep. I live in hope.

I’ve got the blog set up to post in my absence – thanks to contributions from guest bloggers it hasn’t been too difficult to keep up a content flow while also taking a break. If you’d like to guest blog with me, I’m always open to that sort of thing.

Time off is essential for mental health, for quality of life, for creativity and functionality. The UK government has been making some ominous noises about cutting worker’s rights now we are out of the EU. As someone who is self employed, I don’t really have those rights, but I am more than prepared to stick up for the people who do. The way I’ve been living is not optimal and I have no desire to see anyone else stuck in the same kind of relentless work grind.


Changing how I work

This week I put down my paid work with the Transition Network. For some years now I’ve done a monthly community newsletter for Transition Stroud, and of late I’ve also been doing the social media as well. It’s been a good project to work with and there’s a lot to like about it. The pay was steady, more than the minimum wage most of the time, and it was work I could do well. I poured a lot into it.

Like many self employed people, I work multiple small jobs. The trouble with this is the generally invisible work around working. If you just do one job, you probably won’t notice it. You need to know your people, the outfit you work for, its rules, habits, assumptions, systems and whatnot. As someone doing social media work, I also have to know the brand identity and how it’s evolving and be on top of news developments.  There’s quite a lot of mental work that all of us do around the work we officially do.

When you work multiple jobs, you still have to have a full job’s worth of that knowledge for every single job you are doing. Then you have to move between jobs, keeping track of what applies where.  It might seem like having lots of small jobs would be no harder work than doing the same number of hours on a single job, but it is, because of all that extra mental labour required.

There was a brief patch when I was up to eight jobs, and a long stretch when I was doing seven.  I’d successfully brought the number down, but even so it’s been hard. The Transition work was my one remaining outlier, the job that doesn’t overlap with any other job, which makes it the most expensive in terms of tracking all the information I need.  It’s not been easy to let go of, but if I am to avoid burnout and stay passably sane, this is the kind of change I need to make.

The other less than perfectly visible issue with having lots of freelance jobs, is that you have none of the benefits conventional employment gives. There is no paid sick leave. There is also no paid holiday leave. In the absence of paid time off, you either have to take a pay cut to get a break, or you have to work extra hard to offset your missing week. Neither of these approaches is restful.  Having done years when I didn’t manage to take a whole week off, this kind of thing is hard, and not good for mental health.

There are advantages to companies and organisations in hiring freelancers – no national insurance to pay, no pension requirements, no holiday or sick pay, short term contracts, fewer rights for the person you’ve hired, and it’s easier to have them on flexible terms. For a small outfit this can be an unavoidable necessity – Transition Stroud is a community group with a small budget and just doesn’t have enough work to turn what I was doing into a full time job.  This is also often the way of it around marketing and social media work, and quite a lot of publishing industry work. These are also reasons we really need Universal Basic Income to smooth things out for individual workers and small organisations alike.


Seasonal Exhaustion

It is mid December and as usual for this time of year, I’m exhausted. The reasons are different from other years, but the outcomes are much the same. In previous years I’ve been out working Christmas markets, having had to work extra hard in the days leading up to it, to clear my regular online work so as to make the time. In recent years I’ve also worked evening events – often other people’s seasonal parties. Late nights, then up early to do the markets. One year I did a market day and an evening event until 3 in the morning.

Usually I’m trying to figure out how and when the festive gift shopping and wrapping is going to happen. Trying to cut down on seasonal waste, I’ve made gift bags for several years running, and home-made gifts. Last year I made crackers and re-usable fabric hats. Which all takes time and planning and work and effort.

Some years I’ve managed to take time off between Christmas and New Year and often this is my one week off in the year and I can’t always manage it. I’m doing a lot less festive work this year, but the extra push to get time off may be beyond me. Perhaps I’ll be able to have a long weekend.

Christmas always means exhaustion. This year, between covid, and Tom having had a stroke, I’ve made it very clear that I’m just not doing the things. I’m not making anything for anyone else at the moment. I’m not shopping, or making bags. There’s an economic impact to not doing the markets but I’m so glad covid-caution persuaded us not to because Tom recovering from a stroke really can’t work that way this year and I cannot do it on my own. There’s too much to carry around.

Most years, I don’t really have time or energy to do much for midwinter – which is my festival, because of what I end up doing for Christmas. Perhaps this year I will be able to do something other than work.