The Great Burnout: exhausting our health, workers and our planet

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Escaping the growth and jobs treadmill: a new policy agenda for post-coronavirus Europe. [European Youth Forum]

Why do we work so much? Beyond the 40-hour working week, around a tenth of employees in OECD countries routinely work 50 hours or more each week. In some European countries, people are even working longer hours than a decade or two ago. For example, in Sweden, the average annual hours worked per person rose by 6%, from 1,516 to 1,609, between 1980 to 2015.

The European Youth Forum is the platform organisation advocating for youth rights in Europe. The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) is the environmental voice of European citizens.

These are just the numbers behind individual stories. Many young people feel their impact. The rate of burnouts and depression have skyrocketed. Probably every one of us knows at least one friend or colleague who has suffered from work-related mental illnesses such as burnout, a term now officially classified by WHO as a ‘occupational phenomenon’.

For most people, the decision to work long hours is not a personal choice. It’s, by and large, not even their employers choice. It’s systemic. The reasons for this are laid out in a new report published by the European Youth Forum and the European Environmental Bureau, which provides solutions on how we can escape the vicious cycle we find ourselves in.

Labour productivity is the key to understanding these trends in working hours and how our system works. Essentially, labour productivity measures how efficiently we as workers can produce. Thanks to technological innovation and labour saving devices, in recent decades we have been becoming much more efficient in producing goods and services. So why do we find ourselves working so much?

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, labour productivity growth was so high that we actually managed to reduce working hours and grow GDP at the same time. However, since the new millennium productivity growth has been slowing down and now we have a tough choice to make: what to do with our productivity dividend? The answer, every time, has been to produce more, rather than work less.

In our current economic system, we have been helpless to choose otherwise. Simply put, if the economy becomes more productive, that means fewer people are needed to produce the same amount of stuff, which is a good thing but not for the workers who are no longer needed. In a competitive market economy firms are forced to lay off half of the workers in order to stay profitable. While goods are available at a cheaper price, aggregate wages fall and the many redundant workers can no longer afford to buy them, leading to a spiral of inequality, economic calamity and social chaos.

The only way out is to produce and consume more stuff to create jobs for the otherwise unemployed. It’s like riding a bicycle. You must keep going if you don’t want to fall. What’s worse, given the impacts on our ecosystem, that bicycle is driving straight into an abyss. While we’re burning out from driving consumption and production, so is our planet.

The Covid-19 pandemic did not break our system, it merely exposed its fragility. Even before its impacts, inequality was spiralling out of control. Most humans are one economic shock away from disaster, while more and more people are either overworked or struggling to survive on their wages. As researcher Laura Basu from Utrecht University attested: “what kind of a daft system means that if we put the brakes on and calm down for a few weeks the whole thing implodes?” Can we really do no better than that?

While there is a lot of talk about ‘building back better’, economic growth and job creation is a TINA (there is no alternative) in our economic system. This is the argument politicians across the political spectrum are putting forward in their recovery plans: boost growth and jobs in order to get us back on track.

We believe that there is another way. Building back better means reducing the structural dependence of our economic system on growth and job creation by decoupling work from livelihoods. It’s moving away from the standard 40-hours week and from standard forms of company ownership and from environmental degradation. Essentially, a bicycle with support wheels.

We have a unique opportunity to learn from the devastating mistakes of the past and the present. We can create a better system focusing on jobs that are essential to the functioning and flourishing of the real economy, that leads workers to more security and autonomy, and that generates less pressure on our environment, and a real chance to decarbonise the economy. Let’s not waste it.

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