from the world's big
As an automated workforce nears, eight-hour workweek may arise for humans
We're going to have to reckon with our workweek sooner than later.
- Researchers discovered that eight hours of work per week reduces mental health issues by 30 percent.
- Working a full-time job, roughly 40 hours per week, does not result in further mental health gains.
- Societies are going to have to grapple with a new distribution of work as AI and robotics will soon replace many jobs.
Alibaba co-founder, Jack Ma, came under fire in April when calling a 12-hour a day, six-day workweek a "blessing." He defended his statement by claiming China's booming economy is the result of booting out "slackers," yet the sentiment reeked of modern indentured servitude. China's labor laws aren't exactly known for being worker-centric.
Ma's bottom line as a billionaire might rely on such a dedicated workforce, but a new study from researchers at the universities of Cambridge and Salford proposes a new model for keeping workers happy: Not twelve hours a day — not even twelve a week. The magic number seems to be eight.
An eight-hour workweek rebuts every capitalistic narrative we've been taught. The forty-hour workweek, recall, is an 80-year-old construction, not a social necessity for the functioning of society.
When the U.S. government started tracking working hours in 1890, the average manufacturing employee was clocking in 100 hours per week, even though legislation had been introduced as early as 1866 to cut it back to eight hours per day. Child labor laws, introduced in 1938, also forced employers to reassess what they could do to their workforce. There has never been a perfect working environment; the powerful have always exploited workers by whatever means possible.
In the current "gig economy," working hours are sporadic and often uncertain for a portion of the population. Workweeks often comprise 40, 60, even 80 hours spread across multiple employers. Media discussing the shift from full-time employment to contracting tends to focus on employee pay and corporate governance. Little regarding the mental health of workers has been entertained.
The basis of the study is Andrew Yang-esque: rapid advancements in AI, VR, and AR are changing the nature of work and employment opportunities in the very near future. One caveat about this study: for mental health perks to emerge from so few hours, the playing field would have to be leveled to the point where most employees partake. In this light, the findings rely on a lot of speculation that would require a total rethinking of "work."
Presidential candidate Andrew Yang talks A.I. and a universal basic income
A sad fact persists even in the midst of such speculation: we might not have a choice. The team first looked at how changes in work time affected 71,113 workers (out of an initial pool of over 156,000). They studied the mental wellbeing of employees working between one hour and 48 hours per week. A baseline for maintaining a sense of purpose and mental stability occurred around eight hours. Notably, benefits did not increase (or decrease) with more work. Full-time employment did not bestow extra benefits.
When workers reentered the workforce — after a bout of unemployment or raising a child — mental heath issues were reduced by 30 percent from just one day of paid labor. The study's co-author, Cambridge sociologist Dr. Brendan Burchell, who also leads the Employment Dosage research project, focuses on the shifting nature of employment. He notes:
"We know unemployment is often detrimental to people's wellbeing, negatively affecting identity, status, time use, and sense of collective purpose. We now have some idea of just how much paid work is needed to get the psychosocial benefits of employment — and it's not that much at all."
Plenty of previous research has shown that work offers a sense of purpose. Yet so can family, social circles, pets—the list is not reduced to occupation alone. Work is one aspect of group cohesion; an important one, but perhaps not the one that needs to dominate our lives.
Anthropological research has shown that just a couple hours of hours of work per day were likely enough for hunter-gatherer tribes to function. Obviously, this type of work (building and maintaining shelter, hunting, agriculture) is vastly different than careers in individualist societies, where "getting ahead" is the primary focus and social cohesion is an archaic throwback. In this sense, society has truly thwarted biology.
An A.I. robot with a humanistic face, entitled Alter 3: Offloaded Agency, is pictured during a photocall to promote the forthcoming exhibition entitled "AI: More than Human", at the Barbican Centre in London on May 15, 2019. Photo credit: Ben Stansall / AFP / Getty Images
The world we're entering, ruled by automation thanks to big data and robotics, is going to change our sense of shared values. Salford's Dr. Daiga Kamerāde, the study's first author, says we need to completely reorient the workforce if we care about the sanity of employees:
"If there is not enough for everybody who wants to work full-time, we will have to rethink current norms. This should include the redistribution of working hours, so everyone can get the mental health benefits of a job, even if that means we all work much shorter weeks."
Further benefits include carbon emission reduction (less commuting), improved work-life balance, and increased productivity. Again, this model would force societies to confront the redistribution of wealth. What academics perceive as reasonable on paper will likely manifest as Steinbeckian, workers smothering fellow citizens racing to the front of the employment line (or Amazon factory caravans growing in size).
The research team set out with two clear goals: discover the minimum number of working hours per week to satisfy mental wellbeing requirements and the optimum number of hours for peak mental health. On both counts, that number is much smaller than popularly advertised, particularly by a certain Chinese billionaire.
Of course, some work is better than none. That too is clear from this research. While robots and A.I. are on the tip of everyone's mind, we're soon going to have to grapple with one of the greatest challenges in human history: reorienting society to deal with the ravages of climate change. It will certainly give us a renewed sense of purpose, but what that means for the future of "work" remains to be seen. Best to start to prepare now.
- America's ideal work week: shorter hours, less pay - Big Think ›
- 6 ways to improve mental health in the workplace - Big Think ›
- 6 ways to improve mental health in the workplace - Big Think ›
- 6 ways to improve mental health in the workplace - Big Think ›
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Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.