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."

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COVID and "gain of function" research: should we create monsters to prevent them?

Gain-of-function mutation research may help predict the next pandemic — or, critics argue, cause one.

Credit: Guillermo Legaria via Getty Images
Coronavirus

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

"I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

A virus and a firestorm

The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

Just three special traits

Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

"In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

"Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

And, potentially, people.

"This work should never have been done"

The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

"When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

"You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

"Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

"Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

"The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

"Nature will continue to do this"

They were dead on the beaches.

In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

"We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

"If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

"With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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Credit: Hà Nguyễn via Unsplash
Sex & Relationships
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