Wednesday, 10 July 2013

How much is a day's work?

Earlier this week I was ranting about employment, and making workplaces disability-friendly.  But there's an important caveat to this: even in the best workplaces in the world (and I have worked in some pretty awesome ones), some of us just aren't built for permanent full-time work.

Maybe we have limited strength or stamina.  Maybe we have chronic pain.  Maybe it takes us so much extra energy to do everyday things that we hit the wall earlier than others.  Maybe we can only be around other people for so long.  Maybe we can only handle light or noise or other sensory input for so long.  Maybe we need a chunk of free time each week to go to physio or other therapy.  There are countless reasons why a person might be eminently qualified for a job, but not able to front up for 40 hours a week.

But where did this idea come from that 40 hours of work, split into five eight-hour segments across consecutive days, constitutes "full time"?  Who decided that amount is what a person "should" be doing?

The whole concept of a 40 hour week is really quite a modern one.  During the industrial revolution a 16 hour work day was not unheard of, and you were on a good thing if you had only 10.  (Those are both six days a week, mind you.)

Then agitation for a ten-hour working day became a thing in England, and a 12-hour day was brought in over in France.  Then someone realised that 24 was a factor of eight and the concept of having eight hours each for work, rest and play was born.

from Wikimedia commons
This is a noble theory, and eight hours a day is a massive improvement on 16, especially if you're a 12 year old spending those 16 hours on your feet doing hard, repetitive factory labour.  But it's still an arbitrary figure, picked as a compromise between workers and employers and because it goes neatly into 24.

But just as some people need a lot more than eight hours' sleep a night, and some people need much less, so too do we all have our own capacity to work.  A lot of people can manage eight hours.  Some can put in a lot more.  And some can do less.

A lot of the sort of jobs I'm qualified for were designed with the 40 hour week in mind.  They're jobs that require (at least) eight hours a day, five days a week.  Part-timing would mean your newspaper would be skinny some days, or your local radio show would be dead air (or, more realistically, beamed in from another city) half the time.  Job-sharing isn't always practical in this industry, either, because one usually has so many stories in progress and so much background info rattling around in your head that briefing your replacement on handover day would be a massive task.

But there has to be some answer.  Because at the moment, the standard 40 hour working week means people with skills, passion and motivation, who want to work, who could do 1-39 hours a week, instead all too often find ourselves doing 0.