Should we be working less?

Across the world, companies are experimenting with shorter workweeks — is it working?

Should we be working less?
(photo by LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Is it time to rethink how we work?
  • Research has shown that we both work more than is good for our health and more than is useful.
  • Numerous companies and countries have implemented 35-, 30-, and even 25-hour workweeks.

It's a little after lunch, and your struggling to keep your eyes open. Most of the important work in the day you finished in the morning. Sure, you could probably scrounge up something to do, but there are no pressing deadlines. Instead, you spend the second half of your workday switching between windows on your computer; maybe a spreadsheet for when your manager walks by, and maybe an article that's grabbed your attention (like this one).

It's more common than you think. The average worker spends a little under three hours a day doing actual work, and the rest of the time they chat with coworkers, look for a new job, check social media, read news websites, and a number of other things that aren't really all that productive.

Turns out, we've been expecting something like this to happen for nearly a century. In the 1930s, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that his grandchildren would be working just 15 hours a week. Because of our advances in technology, we would be able to do in 15 hours what a 1930s employee could do in 40. Therefore, we'd have more time for leisure.

Sounds like he was on the money, right? The average worker really does only work about three hours a day, five days a week. Well, Keynes thought that we'd work a full day Monday and Tuesday, and the rest of the time we'd spend doing whatever we wanted. That didn't happen. Instead, we're trapped in offices, not exactly working, but not exactly relaxing either.

Working ourselves to death

A Japanese office worker sleeps at a restaurant. Death from overwork in Japan is so common, they had to invent a word for it: karoshi.

(Photo by Jorge Gonzalez via Flickr)

According to an analysis by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Americans — often described as excessively hard workers — spend about 1,780 hours working a year, or at least we spend that much time in the office. However, we're dwarfed by South Koreans, who work 2,069 hours a year. South Koreans are in turn dwarfed by Mexicans, who work 2,225 hours a year. The Japanese are such hard workers they needed to invent a word for death from overworking: karoshi, which covers deaths due to heart failure, starvation, or suicide.

Clearly, something is wrong here. We aren't all that more productive than Keynes thought we would be, but some of us are spending so much time at the desk that we're literally keeling over and dying. Across the world, some companies and governments are trying something new.

Experiments in taking it easy

A number of Swedish companies have cut back working hours in an effort to improve work-life balance.

(Photo by SVEN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)

Through March and April of 2018, a New Zealand company called Perpetual Guardian experimented with a 32-hour workweek. Employees worked Monday through Thursday but got paid as though they had worked the regular five-day workweek. Two researchers observed the experiment, and they found that workers reported, by 24 percent, more satisfied with their work-life balance without sacrificing productivity.

In Sweden, workers at a nursing home were switched to a six-hour workday schedule with no pay cut. An audit found that workers were more likely to show up for work, more productive, and healthier to boot.

Also in Sweden, a hospital switched to the six-hour workday schedule and, although costs increased, the hospital performed 20 percent more operations, waiting times were cut, doctors and nurses reported increased efficiency, and absenteeism dropped. Similar experiments being carried out in Sweden — or have been carried out — have all found that, at the very least, productivity remained the same.

Perhaps the most impressive example of this new paradigm is the entire country of Germany. Remember that Americans work about 1,780 hours a year? Germans work about 1,356 hours, among the lowest in the world. For a country famous for its efficiency, this is an incredible number. Keep in mind that Germany saved the Eurozone from collapsing in 2012 and has the fourth-highest GDP in the world as of 2017.

Sounds nice, but...

Of course, this model doesn't always work out. France, for example, instituted a 35-hour work week in 2000. Since then, companies have complained that the law has made them uncompetitive, and France's troublesome unemployment rate has remained static. Now, the law has so many loopholes that most French work more than the 35-hour maximum.

An American company, Treehouse, implemented a 32-hour workweek in 2015. Soon after, the company found it needed to layoff some employees — faced with firing its workers, the company reverted back to the 40-hour workweek. Plus, Treehouse is an online education company, and its customers wanted access to their service during standard business hours.

This ties into a larger issue: even if we're only productive three hours a day, even if we aim to get much of the work done in the morning, sometimes it's still difficult to know when those three hours of focused productivity are going to happen. Not to mention when they'll be most of use. Indeed, in companies that deal with customers or that can face sudden emergencies, having employees in the office during regular hours might be non-negotiable.

But even if working less than 40 hours a week isn't possible for many businesses, working more than that is clearly a bad idea. Doing so leads to cardiovascular issues and mental-health issues, and there are steeply diminishing returns in terms of productivity. Americans work about 8.8 hours a day on average — let's not let it get to the point where we have to invent an English word for "death from overwork."

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
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  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
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Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think www.youtube.com

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

"Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

"There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."
DR. JENNIFER DOUDNA

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

Ancient megalodon shark was even bigger than estimated, finds study

A school lesson leads to more precise measurements of the extinct megalodon shark, one of the largest fish ever.

Megalodon attacks a seal.

Credit: Catmando / Adobe Stock.
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