To the point of collapse, and beyond

by Maria on April 8, 2014

I spent last week in a posh beach hut somewhere very hot, sleeping off the latest ICANN meeting and reading a stack of books. But mostly just sleeping.

ICANN meetings are inhuman. The nice ‘back to school’ bit, exchanging cheery hellos in the hallways with people you’ve not seen for months, is over in the first eighteen hours. From then it’s an unmerciful eight or nine day slog through jetlag, air conditioning, bad tempers, disinformation, misinformation and information overload. Forget about having time for meals, exercise or sufficient sleep; I ration my fluid intake because there literally isn’t enough time to go to the loo. (This is bad; I nearly always get what I now call my Tuesday Migraine.) I did not get outside in daylight from the afternoon I took the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow to a ten-minute walk to an external meeting, seven days later. That’s not at all unusual. The meetings are scheduled and conducted as if the people taking part don’t occupy human bodies. The topic of ICANN volunteer burnout is an evergreen, especially people who aren’t paid lobbyists of one sort or another. As a friend wrote to me this morning:

“The result (of fewer volunteers doing an increasing amount of policy work) is that the organization retreats from its roots as a bottom-up, multistakeholder policy body to a staff-driven stakeholder interest-based policy organization. If that transition takes place, then the fundamental position of ICANN in the Internet’s management ecosystem may change significantly.”

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Other people’s books are always more interesting than the book you’re reading. This is how I came to cast aside Eleanor Catton’s ‘The Luminaries’ in favour of Ron Chernow’s 1989 history of international finance, ‘The House of Morgan’. (I’d actually thought there would be a lot more about Keynes in it than there was and, yes, I wanted to read all about Jack Morgan’s yachts.)

One odd little strain running through the book was the strain of over-work, and how it was to be expected and dealt with. Collapse from nervous exhaustion and working too hard – by WASP bankers, of course, not their cleaning ladies – was so common as to be a frequent topic of conversation and correspondence.

Pierpoint Morgan himself suffered constant ailments all his life and was well known to both dislike and be addicted to his job. He took large chunks of time off and was quite open about working only nine months of the year. It wasn’t just the hereditary rulers of JP Morgan who took months off at a time. Several of the partners profiled in Chernow’s book worked to the point of damaging their health, took a few months off and came back. One was quite open about the fact that he only wanted to work nine months in twelve, and was subsequently invited to do just that. No less a personage than CT’s own very occasional contributor, Montagu Norman, then head of the Bank of England, worked himself into a burnout over the Gold Standard. Jack Morgan kindly offered Monty the use of his yacht to cross the Atlantic for a few months of wartime leave in the early 1940s. (Old Monty declined, saying he was already en route to Quebec.)

But now I think of it, the Victorians were all over this. Florence Nightingale repeatedly worked herself into exhausted collapse, and then took to the chaise longue for weeks or months. Dickens, too, had a thing where nervous collapse and physical depletion would just kind of come to a head every now and then. Then he would rest, rest, rest, and after a while, resume. I don’t know if chimney sweeps got it, too.

But somewhere in the late twentieth century we forgot about all this. With antibiotics and behaviourism and god knows what else, the mind body connection got disjointed. People stopped having a good excuse to say they were spent. When burnout and chronic fatigue were ‘discovered’ in the 1980s, the popular view was – and still is, for the most part – incredulity and a sense that people whose bodies had suddenly and seemingly inexplicably forgotten how to be well were somehow faking it. Or asking for it.

An old friend who was dean of students at a US university told me that at the start of her career students who got mononucleosis – which often presages chronic fatigue – would just go home for a semester and sleep it off. The following term they’d be back, fighting fit. But by the 1990s, they would fight it and fight it and lose, and two years later still be dragging about campus, white-faced and heavy-footed and trailing incompletes.

Put it this way, when’s the last time you heard of someone actually convalescing?

There are all sorts of structural economic reasons why the over-achieving classes are no longer allowed to recover from the illnesses and exhaustions whose slow and windy pace we once had a humdrum familiarity with. And it’s hard to tell if extended periods of inactivity or sub-par abilities are purely the preserve of the Nightingales and the Morgans and the Woolfs, or if they’re just the ones whose day to day productivity is better chronicled. (Early research into ‘yuppy flu’ showed it was anything but; the most frequently afflicted US demographic was working age, working class Hispanic women.)

When something stops having a name, it gets harder to track and compare across generations. Nowadays, it seems easier to categorise fatigue or burnout as depression, as if it’s somehow anomalous and not something entirely to be expected. When the only tool you have is antidepressants, every indeterminate ailment becomes the nail. How many cases of post-natal depression, for example, are purely the symptoms of hard core sleep deprivation?

Exhaustion lowers inhibitions and mood, and drastically affects judgement. But we have a working culture that pretends it simply doesn’t matter. 11pm conference call? Sure. Five hour show and tell? No problem. Working lunch? What other kind is there? But the one thing we are not allowed to say is that we are tired. Too. Damn. Tired. For all their whacky notions and prudery, the Victorians were far ahead of us.

{ 68 comments }

1

MPAVictoria 04.08.14 at 7:40 pm

“When burnout and chronic fatigue were ‘discovered’ in the 1980s, the popular was – and still is, for the most part – incredulity and a sense that people whose bodies had suddenly and seemingly inexplicably forgotten how to be well were somehow faking it. Or asking for it.”

Great post Maria. The above line particularly speaks to me. It seems like you cannot take a day off without being accused of malingering.

2

Main Street Muse 04.08.14 at 8:07 pm

“Put it this way, when’s the last time you heard of someone actually convalescing?”

True… and so very sad. And also love the ideas on anti-depressants and PPD. Great post. And MPAVictoria’s line about malingering is also perceptive.

3

Straightwood 04.08.14 at 8:14 pm

Burnout-level work is a kind of theatrical performance expected in certain professional cultures. It seems to serve as an effective justification for excessive compensation in modern society, despite the obvious diminishing returns associated with sleep deprivation.

It is ironic that the logic of F.W. Taylor’s pioneering scientific management studies documenting the substantial productivity benefits of forced rest breaks has never been accepted by knowledge workers. The burnout work style is the modern white collar workplace equivalent of ritual warfare among primitive peoples. It is a symbolic display of ferocious commitment with dubious practical benefits.

4

TM 04.08.14 at 8:32 pm

I’m always amazed when people talk about working long hours, working weekends and not taking breaks as if they were proud of it.

5

TM 04.08.14 at 8:33 pm

… and they are actually proud of it – they aren’t pretending.

6

BruceJ 04.08.14 at 8:54 pm

Jim Hightower has a quip about the weary waitress watching Bush on the teevee proclaiming how many jobs he’s created. “Yeah, I have three of them, myself.”

Burnout is a distinctly management-class thing. The rest of the world calls it ‘having to work for a living’ and when most don’t even get sick days, let alone time to recuperate from illnesses, and a huge number of them work more than one job to stay afloat, it means your life expectancy is significantly shorter.

What those chimney sweeps did was die young, often of diseases like cancer or TB exacerbated by malnutrition. (the first identification of a chemical carcinogen was the linkage of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in soot with testicular cancer in London chimney sweeps)

Only the wealthy could lead a life like Dickens.

7

Limericky Dicky 04.08.14 at 9:06 pm

It’s the proles in the race to the bottom (stoked by adverts for lynctus, God rot ‘em). Self-abasing mentalities impose externalities – maybe unions? Oh no, we ain’t got ‘em.

8

LFC 04.08.14 at 9:22 pm

BruceJ
Only the wealthy could lead a life like Dickens

Dickens himself had to go to work in a blacking factory (as in boot blacking, iirc) for about a year as a boy, something he never forgot. It was more tedious and humiliating than life-threatening (and thus different from being a chimney sweep).

9

Vladimir 04.08.14 at 9:40 pm

In Lords of Finance , Benjamin Strong the president of the NY Fed was shown to be chronically ill , a man who routinely took long stretches of time away to convalesce. Montagu Norman the governor of the Bank of England took months off as well to vacation in France ( to rest his nerves) or travel across the Atlantic to the US. It was shocking how often they were away from their respective institutions. However rest time didn’t help them make the right decisions to avoid the Great Depression. In my personal experience , long hours in the office are preferable to the midnight shift.

10

James Conran 04.08.14 at 10:34 pm

You can add Bismarck to the list – seems to have been constantly convalescing following bouts of overwork (compounded by overeating and -drinking as well as bad temper).

@ Vladimir – Strong’s illness was TB though, so presumably not caused by overwork?

11

PJW 04.09.14 at 1:05 am

Nietzsche seems to get close to the heart of this stuff with his writings on sickness and convalescence. It’s what came to mind while reading Maria’s post, fwiw.

12

BruceJ 04.09.14 at 1:36 am

@LFC

Tony Robinson (‘Baldrick on Blackadder) has an awesome series about jobs in various eras. It’s amazing how dangerous and toxic (and ofttimes sheerly disgusting) many jobs were in bygone eras. “The Worst Jobs in History”.

13

SN 04.09.14 at 3:49 am

Perhaps I’m overdramatizing but suicides have increased dramatically for the middle-aged. You wonder if some people might reconsider if (a) they had a safety net and (b) they could take a rest.

It’s not at all true that burnout and giving up and taking to your bed are only for the upper classes. In fact, you find some people doing that even in very poor countries.

14

Maria 04.09.14 at 5:01 am

SN, yes. I *believe* that burnout and various forms of combined physical and mental collapse are not just experienced by those more likely to be written about. The notion that they are only for people who can, or used to be able to, take to bed is pretty diminishing.

Thanks, MPA and MSM. I’m afraid I know more about this topic than I’d like to admit.

Straightwood; I think you really nail it with this: “Burnout-level work is a kind of theatrical performance expected in certain professional cultures”. There’s a prideful complicity that shuts down anyone who lacks what must be above average stamina.

Bismarck, yes of course. And I’d forgotten about Nietszche.

15

bad Jim 04.09.14 at 5:24 am

Charles Ives was burned out by the time he was fifty, no longer able to continue in either his insurance business or his composing.

Fifty’s not so bad; by the time they reached that age, Mozart, Schubert and Mendelssohn were long dead.

16

Phil 04.09.14 at 10:14 am

How many cases of post-natal depression, for example, are purely the symptoms of hard core sleep deprivation?

I remember I was in a very weird place for some time after my mother died. Without getting too reductionist – I mean, the grieving itself was a whole-body response to a shock – I have wondered since how much of what I experienced was symptomatic of sleep deprivation (for about a year afterwards I was getting six hours on a good night).

When your body kicks back, it kicks back hard. My father told me once that when he’d been awake for 40-odd hours (at his mother’s deathbed) he suddenly started talking French to everyone; it’s just that they were all speaking French and he thought he should make the effort to join in. (They weren’t.)

17

dBonar 04.09.14 at 11:25 am

Two thoughts:

1. I have just a fairly ordinary office job, but both my father and father-in-law are surprised by the amount of vacation time I have. My dad in particular, recalls that it was many years into his career (big company, white collar job with a graduate degree) before he got his first week of paid vacation. A generation later, my fist job started me with 4 weeks. That makes me think that while we like to complain about how we are all more overworked and more stressed than people used to be, maybe that’s not the case.

2. For the headline people — JP Morgan, Winston Churchill, etc. — I wonder whether there has been a change due to rising population. There are roughly 4x as many people in the world today as when JP was active, and a much higher percentage of them matter — in the sense of being part of global news and society — but there still can only be one head of the Fed, a handful of top level global investment banking heads, etc. So there is a lot more competition for those jobs. Another (fuzzy) way of saying the same thing is that the reach of our institutions has gotten larger over time in such a way that the ratio of “top-level jobs” to “globally involved population” has fallen over time, though in the process absorbing some of the unused attention space that had existed previously.

18

Barry 04.09.14 at 12:50 pm

One thing to keep track of is class – if certain jobs are only open to 0.1% of society, they’ll probably be less competitive than if they are open to 1%, let alone 5%.

I’m wondering how many deaths due to ‘ordinary’ sickness, back in the day, were actually caused by exhaustion leading to a fatal illness. I imagine for the bottom half of society, a huge proportion were.

19

JG 04.09.14 at 12:55 pm

And as a recent article by Jim can’tspellhisname economist in the New Yorker showed, all this bravado is inversely related to productivity. In management it seems closely linked to pure performance, as both the tough boss and the tough employee engage in an odd minuet to determine not who can do more or better work, but who will survive. And yes much of it is about sleep: plenty of data on average hours of sleep and illness. Less than six will kill you. Or, if the person not sleeping is an intern or resident, will kill me.

20

MPAVictoria 04.09.14 at 1:09 pm

” A generation later, my fist job started me with 4 weeks.”

Wow. I need to work where you work. I have to wait 8 years to get 4 weeks.

21

Z 04.09.14 at 2:15 pm

That was a truly great post!

22

Ben Alpers 04.09.14 at 2:39 pm

Great post.

@6: Burnout is a distinctly management-class thing. The rest of the world calls it ‘having to work for a living’ and when most don’t even get sick days, let alone time to recuperate from illnesses, and a huge number of them work more than one job to stay afloat, it means your life expectancy is significantly shorter….Only the wealthy could lead a life like Dickens.

While the achievement of time off was certainly limited to the management class, the aspiration to time off didn’t have class limits. As a certain Victorian gentleman once wrote: “In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”

23

MPAVictoria 04.09.14 at 3:04 pm

“In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”

You know all these years later that still sounds like a good foundation for living a happy, varied life.

24

novakant 04.09.14 at 3:06 pm

I have to wait 8 years to get 4 weeks.

That’s crazy – come to Europe!

25

TM 04.09.14 at 3:20 pm

17: Work hours were reduced and vacation time increased during much of the 20th century but the tendency is now in the opposite direction (certainly for those having to work multiple jobs) or stagnating at best. It is unlikely that those entering the workforce today get more vacation time than their parents. Correct me if I’m wrong.

26

MPAVictoria 04.09.14 at 3:23 pm

” It is unlikely that those entering the workforce today get more vacation time than their parents. Correct me if I’m wrong.”

My partner is a contract worker and so gets no paid vacation whatsoever. Not one fucking day.

27

BruceJ 04.09.14 at 4:12 pm

@Ben Alpers

Well what a certain Victorian gentleman wrote and what came of his writings were two very different things. The dictatorship of the proletariat turned out in the end to not look a whole lot different than the dictatorship of the plutocrat.

Of COURSE everyone would like leisure time. Whether we get to enjoy it or not is very much a class-based thing. (and political/social, in the case of Europe vs. the US)

@dBonar : Yes many companies offer (comparatively) substantial amounts of vacation time…on paper.

What’s not down on paper is the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) business culture that enforces taking the most minimal time off whatever, and when you’re gone, check in by email, and “by the way, your TPS reports are still due while you’re away.” all hanging with the threat that you are expendable, and oh yes, you DO know there are still 4-6 job seekers for every job opening.

Voilà, a recipe for working your employees to death.

Yes, it’s domonstrably inefficient and money-losing proposition to run a business that way…at least one that doesn’t grade success by the quarterly P/L statement. But we live in an age when the people at the top, setting those policies are rewarded handsomely pretty much regardless of their actual results.

Look at Wal-Mart, for example. They cut employee hours to the point that their shelves started looking like Soviet ones circa 1984, and yet it took them well over a year of such dismal results to recognize the problem because *short term* profits were up, thanks to lowered labor costs.

Even now they’re only kind of coming around to the idea that they actually DO need workers in their stores.

28

mud man 04.09.14 at 4:17 pm

… but if you ever slow down, you might GET PASSED … might not BE ALL YOU CAN BE

29

MPAVictoria 04.09.14 at 4:35 pm

“Of COURSE everyone would like leisure time. Whether we get to enjoy it or not is very much a class-based thing. (and political/social, in the case of Europe vs. the US) “

The second part of your sentence is key. There is no reason why those of us in North America shouldn’t all get 6 weeks paid vacation. We simply lack the political will. Even the socialist party (NDP) here doesn’t include that as part of their platform.

30

hix 04.09.14 at 4:44 pm

Depression is also something to be expected under worse enough conditions. I think i recally some study that only about 30% have the genetical makeup to take almost everything without mental health side effects. Here in Germany, burnout is the new word, not the old one. Burnout is something to admit to, the upper class depression that is ok because it came from working hard.

31

Laurens M. Dorsey 04.09.14 at 4:58 pm

Ah, yes. Compelled to work yourself to a nubbin to pump up the trust funds of generations yet unborn.

Imho, the argument — back when the argument could be had about labor and its place in society — shouldn’t have been about equity and fairness, who deserved what size piece of ‘the pie.’ At some point argument really should have been about the fucking pie.

32

Laurens M. Dorsey 04.09.14 at 5:03 pm

(d’oh… forgot to mention Crary’s 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. )

33

Elizabeth 04.09.14 at 5:51 pm

At the company where I work, we don’t get 4 weeks vacation until we’ve been here 15 years.

34

Peter King 04.09.14 at 6:43 pm

@MPAVictoria #26

“My partner is a contract worker and so gets no paid vacation whatsoever. Not one fucking day.”

Are you saying that your partner’s contract allows for no vacation time, or that any vacation taken is unpaid?

My son is also a contract worker and also has had “no paid vacation whatever”. However, his contract has been for X working days per calendar/fiscal year. He has been paid for the days he works. Period. He has therefore been responsible for budgeting his income so that, during the 365-X days per year when he has not been working (weekends, holidays, “vacation”, illness, whatever), he has had the wherewithal to meet his needs.

I know that this is getting off-topic–and do not minimize the importance of vacations (and if your partner’s contract allows for no vacation, I think that’s really shitty)–but I’ve long thought that the concept of “paid vacation” was more than a little paternalistic … that my employer felt it had to hold back (defer paying) part of the income I’d earned so that, when the time came for me to take my vacation, I could afford to.

35

MPAVictoria 04.09.14 at 6:53 pm

“At the company where I work, we don’t get 4 weeks vacation until we’ve been here 15 years.”

Which is crazy. There is no reason why everyone in the developed world shouldn’t get 6 weeks off a year off and a year of parental leave.
/Of course no one ever asked me.
//Wish they would.

36

TM 04.09.14 at 8:47 pm

This discussion reminds me of the institution of construction holidays in the province of Quebec. All construction workers get paid vacation during two fixed weeks in summer and in winter, apparently to prevent employers from giving workers off during bad weather (or not at all). (http://www.ccq.org/M07_CongeVacances.aspx?sc_lang=en&profil=GrandPublic)

37

Main Street Muse 04.09.14 at 9:18 pm

I don’t know anyone who’s taken four weeks of vacation. Do you?

38

The Temporary Name 04.09.14 at 9:26 pm

I have 33 vacation days this year. I carried over four from last year, so 37.

I think I’ll take one tomorrow just because.

39

maidhc 04.10.14 at 4:20 am

When I worked at a regular job, I started with 3 weeks, one of which had to be at Christmas, which was considered generous as most jobs only offered two. I worked my way up to 4 weeks after some years. But the problem was you couldn’t actually use your vacation a lot of the time, and we could only accumulate 4 weeks. When you got up to 4 weeks you had to start cashing some in. When I did take vacation (between projects) I usually took 3 or 4 weeks at once since it would be a long time until I got another chance.

Now I don’t get any vacation at all, but plenty of unpaid time off.

40

Jim Buck 04.10.14 at 6:36 am

41 days per year. I earn them.

41

Zamfir 04.10.14 at 7:56 am

I am from Europe, and I can say that I have too much holidays. At some point in the long gone, contracts in my sector were changed to a (nominal) 38 hours instead of 40, to make room for the unemployed. Pay is based on the 38 hours.

This means normal working weeks (typically in the 40 to 45 hours, excluding breaks, never really below 40), but the 2 hours are turned into extra holidays. This results in 8 weeks total( including Christmas etc).

I don’t want that much holidays, and neither do most people. But it acts as a good buffer against the expectations curse. You can take 4 or 5 weeks of holidays a year, and you’re still seen as a responsible employee who takes their job serious.

42

chris y 04.10.14 at 8:32 am

I don’t want that much holidays, and neither do most people.

This seems to translate as “I can’t think of anything better to do with my time than what my manager tells me.” Which seems terribly sad. Make some new friends. Travel. Do a MOOC. Write a novel.

43

Katherine 04.10.14 at 9:29 am

Wow. I need to work where you work.

Outside the US, by the sounds of it. I just started a new job and I get 26 days as standard plus one more day for each year I work here. Plus I’m on flexi-time, which means I can build up more if I work over my contracted 37.5 hours a week. Generally I don’t because of small child, but it’s nice to know. Another job in this organisation that comes without the flexi-time that was advertised recently came with 38 days. I thought that was a typo, but apparently not. The worst holiday allocation I ever had was 20 days.

Slightly off topic – or on? – what the hell is ICANN doing with that ridiculous schedule? They can’t possibly think that is going to get the best results. Is it about saving money on conference facilities? Or really about keeping out the plebs who can’t handle it?

44

Belle Waring 04.10.14 at 9:34 am

Pretty sure you’re NOT speaking for “most people” there friend…

45

bad Jim 04.10.14 at 9:35 am

Back to burnout.

The Pompidou had a fantastic Joan Miro retrospective once. He’d go in a certain accessible direction for a few years, then he’d tear everything up and do ugly incomprehensible things, and then suddenly start being beautiful again in a completely different and original way, over and over. The ugly stuff was so disturbing that I thought he must have been bipolar, but it seems that disorder has a shorter period; it’s more that he couldn’t resist exploring different solution spaces.

My town has an artistic tradition and First Thursday Art Walks, free wine in most galleries, which I’ve given up because pretty much every painter keeps cranking out the same thing, evidently not suffering from Miro’s itch.

46

NomadUK 04.10.14 at 11:19 am

I am from Europe, and I can say that I have too much holidays.

No, you don’t.

47

Random Lurker 04.10.14 at 12:18 pm

I don’t think I could have something like “too much vacations”…

@Peter King 44
” I’ve long thought that the concept of “paid vacation” was more than a little paternalistic … that my employer felt it had to hold back (defer paying) part of the income I’d earned so that, when the time came for me to take my vacation, I could afford to.”

The problem is that, on the long run, if wages go down, people with just “unpaid leave” will be forced to use their free time to do another job. It’s a bit like piecework: it sounds rational but in the long run it’s a way to screw workers.

48

Ed 04.10.14 at 1:21 pm

“My son is also a contract worker and also has had “no paid vacation whatever”. However, his contract has been for X working days per calendar/fiscal year. He has been paid for the days he works. Period. He has therefore been responsible for budgeting his income so that, during the 365-X days per year when he has not been working (weekends, holidays, “vacation”, illness, whatever), he has had the wherewithal to meet his needs.”

Consider a standard 9 to 5 job where the annual salary is $52,000, with the employer sending you a check for $2000 every two weeks. You get two weeks of paid vacation per year, so for one of these periods the employer sends you $2000 even though you are on vacation.

Now consider a 50 week contract where you work for $52000, with no vacation but the same benefits as in the first job otherwise. As far as vacation is concerned, the conditions of the two jobs are exactly the same.

The key factor is that the annual pay is the same in both jobs. I make the point that structuring work around long term contracts in principle wouldn’t screw the workers at all (in fact, there is a benefit for some in terms of not being bombarded with emails ect. during your “time off”). The problem is that everything has become so stacked against workers that any change in managment-employee relations now, even ones that should be innocuous or beneficial, screw workers. Its easy to get to much into the details and lose sight of this.

49

Peter King 04.10.14 at 2:51 pm

@47 “The problem is that, on the long run, if wages go down, people with just “unpaid leave” will be forced to use their free time to do another job.”

If wages go down, so will people with “paid leave”. The problem here is the adequacy of the wages, not the schedule on which it’s paid.

@48 ” The problem is that everything has become so stacked against workers that any change in managment-employee relations now, even ones that should be innocuous or beneficial, screw workers.”

I hesitate to go further off-topic, but …. Assume that I work a nominal 35-hour week (i.e. five 7-hour days) and that my employer allows me the option of working an extra half hour on the days I come in and to take a day off every second week. Remember, it’s optional … if coming in half an hour later, leaving half an hour earlier, or taking a full lunch hour is more important to me (for whatever reason) than an extra day off every two weeks, I can. I do not see how this screws me. And I’m afraid that to argue that this would not constitute a “change in management-employee relations” but that matter of whether or not one has a portion of one’s salary deferred so that one can have “paid” vacation would is to make too fine a distinction for me.

50

MPAVictoria 04.10.14 at 3:32 pm

” The problem is that everything has become so stacked against workers that any change in managment-employee relations now, even ones that should be innocuous or beneficial, screw workers.”

Bingo. If you don’t feel screwed it means that you must have missed something.

51

TM 04.10.14 at 3:40 pm

Peter King, if paid vacation is paternalistic, what else do you think is paternalistic? Mandatory breaks and 40 hour-weeks and overtime rules and what else? Unless you are a hard-core libertarian suggesting to just let everything be “negotiated” between employer and employee – and that is so ludicrous that it really doesn’t deserve rebuttal – I don’t see your point at all.

49: the flex-time arrangement you are describing is quite common in let’s say progressive work environments. How is that related to the vacation question?

52

TM 04.10.14 at 3:42 pm

I mean arrangements like working an hour longer Mon-Thu to get Friday afternoon off.

53

The Temporary Name 04.10.14 at 4:17 pm

This seems to translate as “I can’t think of anything better to do with my time than what my manager tells me.” Which seems terribly sad. Make some new friends. Travel. Do a MOOC. Write a novel.

There are jobs that are pretty good, and jobs in which you feel it’s satisfying to do well not because of a manager, but because it’s a good thing that needs doing. I’m not suggesting that such jobs are common – the world screams that they are not – but I understand just not taking the vacation because you’re happy enough. I tend to forget to take all of mine. Except for today.

54

Random Lurker 04.10.14 at 4:30 pm

@Peter King 49
“If wages go down, so will people with “paid leave”. The problem here is the adequacy of the wages, not the schedule on which it’s paid.”

Not if paid leave is mandatory, as is in many countries. Not very different from a minimum wage, as a logic.

Incidentially, one of the ways that Marx envisaged for the capitalists to increase the profit share was an increase in the workday (as he assumed that wages weren’t going to increase with the workday). He also believed that an increase in unemployment was a way to keep wages low (the “reserve army of workers” idea).

Now we have: an increase in the workday, in the working life (people retire later) and in the workyear (less holydays).

In countries where there were stronger protections, those protections had been removed in the name of “flexibility”: for example here in Italy up to a few years ago malls had restrictions on their opening hours, whereas now they are mostly open on the weekend (as is the norm in the USA I think); contingent contracts, outlawed up to two decades ago, are becoming the norm (and those contract are often temporary in a way that is similar to your son’s contract, so they basically dodge legal provision on mandatory paid vacations, plus a lot of other provisions), and austerity is providing the “reserve army of workers” with new enrollees.

So I tend to think that, in the present period, this stuff of an increase in the workday and decrease of vacation is not coincidental.

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Peter King 04.10.14 at 5:08 pm

@TM: What seems paternalistic is the notion that workers are (apt to be) so incapable of ordering their financial affairs that their employer must hold back a portion of the money that they have earned this pay period so that it can be given to them when they are on vacation (and therefore not doing whatever it is that earns them their wages). It’s a mandatory vacation lay-away plan. I just think it should be optional, so that a biweekly employee with four weeks’ vacation, let’s say, could arrange to get 2/48 = 1/24 of her salary when she is working (and nothing when she’s not working, as opposed to 1/26 of her salary every two weeks both when she’s working and when she’ s on vacation) but assume responsibility of banking the difference between 1/24 and 1/26 and having the benefit of whatever interest that investing that difference might yield. As it is, the difference stays in the employer’s bank account, and, in effect, the employer keeps the interest on it as an administrative fee.

Mandatory breaks, 40-hour work weeks, etc. have to do with one’s working conditions. What I’m talking about here is a matter of the details how one receives one’s compensation … more on the order of whether one is paid weekly versus biweekly versus monthly etc.

The flex-time issue has nothing to do with the vacation question. I offered it as a challenge to Ed’s assertion (seconded by MPAVictoria) that “any change[s] in managment-employee relations now, even ones that should be innocuous or beneficial, screw workers.” Like you, I have understood this to be a feature of “let’s say progressive work environments”.

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MPAVictoria 04.10.14 at 5:17 pm

“Mandatory breaks, 40-hour work weeks, etc. have to do with one’s working conditions.”

And mandatory Vacation time does not?

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Peter King 04.10.14 at 5:29 pm

“And mandatory Vacation time does not?”

Of course, it does. But did you not read the sentence that follows …. or the preceding paragraph?

I fear that we are arguing about apples (Apples?) and Studebakers.

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Ed 04.10.14 at 5:33 pm

I think people are talking past each other. There are four key factors:

1. Minimum wage per hour
2. Maximum hours
3. Working environment (mainly it should be safe)
4. Nature of the work itself (eg we criminalize some careers, such as gladiators, even if there are people willing to work in them)

I think Peter King’s point is that it is easy to get distracted into arguments about the bureaucratic means to enforce these things. Like in anything, bad bureaucracy can get in the way of improving working conditions, and there was alot of problems with the 1950s style 9-5 workplace.

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Barry 04.10.14 at 5:57 pm

” A generation later, my fist job started me with 4 weeks.”

MPAVictoria: “Wow. I need to work where you work. I have to wait 8 years to get 4 weeks.”

OTOH, how big was the fist in your job?

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MPAVictoria 04.10.14 at 5:59 pm

“OTOH, how big was the fist in your job?”

Huge! Second biggest I have ever seen.

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Barry 04.10.14 at 6:05 pm

Zamfir: “I don’t want that much holidays, and neither do most people. “

I disagree. Most people like vacation time, and people with children need those days off.

Peter King 04.10.14 at 5:08 pm

” @TM: What seems paternalistic is the notion that workers are (apt to be) so incapable of ordering their financial affairs that their employer must hold back a portion of the money that they have earned this pay period so that it can be given to them when they are on vacation (and therefore not doing whatever it is that earns them their wages). “

I smell Econ 101.

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TM 04.10.14 at 6:30 pm

PK, I don’t think your proposition is terribly practical. It would make it harder to verify whether your boss is paying you right (and yep that is a big deal for many employees) and it would create a strong incentive against taking vacation, which brings us back to the starting point. As to paternalism, that seems a red herring except in the curious case of the construction workers in Quebec (see 36) which certainly amounts to paternalism – the timing of their vacation is fixed! But there are reasons for that arrangement. It was afaik introduced to stop rampant abuse by employers. It was simply too easy for employers to cheat, and those who cheated gained a competitive advantage.

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Philip 04.10.14 at 7:14 pm

I work in an FE college in the UK. Admin and other support staff start on 29 days and, although some only have term-time contracts which work slightly differently. Teaching staff get 44 days but have to work considerably over their contracted hours to complete the work they are expected to. They’ll also spend some leave time working at home or might nigh use all of their entitlement. Some teaching staff are employed through an internal agency for short periods or term-time only and receive holiday pay at at least the statutory minimum level. For the teaching staff though it seems to be the burnout-rest model. My eldest sister is just completing her first year as a primary school teacher and it is similar for her.

There is often criticism of teachers for complaining about working conditions when they get good holiday entitlement. Besides the fact their complaints are usually unrelated to working hours it seems impossible to me that good standards could be maintained without teachers getting some time to rest.

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Mario 04.10.14 at 8:29 pm

Peter King,

What seems paternalistic is the notion that workers are (apt to be) so incapable of ordering their financial affairs that their employer must hold back a portion of the money that they have earned this pay period so that it can be given to them when they are on vacation (and therefore not doing whatever it is that earns them their wages). It’s a mandatory vacation lay-away plan.

This is the typical drivel that comes out from terminally myopic minds. And I think I’m being nice here. I mean – are you serious?

Philip,

Teaching staff get 44 days but have to work considerably over their contracted hours to complete the work they are expected to.

One of the tragedies of mankind is that people (like the teaching staff you mention) just put up with this kind of circumstances instead of revolting.

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Philip 04.11.14 at 7:33 am

Mario, yes and teaching is one of the professions more strongly represented by unions in the UK. However, contrary to popular belief they do not take the decision to strike lightly, partly because they’ll still have to do the work from when they were out on strike.

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Barry 04.11.14 at 2:09 pm

Philip : “My eldest sister is just completing her first year as a primary school teacher and it is similar for her.

There is often criticism of teachers for complaining about working conditions when they get good holiday entitlement. Besides the fact their complaints are usually unrelated to working hours it seems impossible to me that good standards could be maintained without teachers getting some time to rest.”

I remember as a teenager dropping by the house of a teaching couple, and seeing the dining room table covered one foot deep with papers to read and grade. I hadn’t before realized that teachers put in massive amounts of work after hours and on the weekends.

On the other hand, I was a teenager, and ignorant. Right-wingers who think that teachers don’t work hard enough don’t have that excuse.

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MPAVictoria 04.11.14 at 3:24 pm

“On the other hand, I was a teenager, and ignorant. Right-wingers who think that teachers don’t work hard enough don’t have that excuse.”

Oh Bravo!

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Main Street Muse 04.11.14 at 8:56 pm

“On the other hand, I was a teenager, and ignorant. Right-wingers who think that teachers don’t work hard enough don’t have that excuse.”

It is my belief that RWNJs know exactly what they are doing when they bash teachers, and let’s face it, workers of any kind. To bow down before the altar of shareholder value, one must first diminish the value of workers in order to diminish their pay, which increases profits.

By trashing teachers, there is the added value trashing education, which creates an under- / uneducated pool of people who will be desperate to take low-pay jobs.

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