Time, work and wellbeing

Changing the way time is conceived would give us more chance of harmonising work with caring and creativity.

Barbara Adam
1 December 2019, 5.11pm
Pixabay/2092512. Pixabay licence.

Stress and illness are prominent features of work in industrial societies today, where ever more work needs to be done by ever fewer workers. Meanwhile, ever larger numbers of people lack secure work and a regular income because they have been replaced by machines, or their jobs can be done cheaper elsewhere, or they are struggling to survive in a precarious economy.

Time is a central feature of our working lives that is rarely addressed in analyses of trends like these, yet an explicit focus on the social relations of time not only gives us new insights into the stresses and strains involved in the modern world of work; it also indicates the changes that are necessary if we’re going to promote alternative approaches to work and wellbeing.

Matter is the stuff our world is made of and space is the domain in which we operate. Matter and space are negotiated explicitly in the realm of politics and public policy, but what of time and its social relations?

Our assumptions about time are usually taken for granted, and therefore operate in a much less accessible realm. For example, time is seen as a quantity that can be given a universal numerical value: one hour is the same irrespective of season or place whether it is summer or winter in Boston, Brisbane, Bombay or Bergen, so all time is equal.

Only as an abstract, standardized unit can time become a neutral value in the remuneration of work and the calculation of efficiency and profit. Economic time is money, and speed therefore means more progress and greater cost effectiveness. We don’t question the idea that time is a personal and public resource with a use value on the one hand, and an economic resource with an exchange value on the other.

Simultaneously, however, a second set of assumptions implies that all time is not equal and that context matters: season, place and condition make a difference. There is a right time for action and an inopportune time to intervene. Not all time is money, as children, home-workers, the elderly and prisoners know only too well. And time isn’t just exchanged for money but gifted in the context-dependent interactions that take place between spouses, lovers, friends, carers and the cared for.

In this second set of assumptions, time is intimately tied to development and evolution, birth and death, growth and decay, and to the movements of the earth, moon and sun, which affect all life on earth. As a silent pulse, time structures our being, which is governed by patterns of activity and rest, work and play. It also has an irreversible direction: people age, cars rust, and burning logs turn to ashes.

Both these sets of assumptions include past and future as fundamental extensions to the present, but they play out differently, and the inherent conflicts and contradictions between them usually go unchallenged. Importantly, it is taken as given that the first set takes priority over the second, which means that public policies and employment relations are structured around a one-sided interpretation which disadvantages all those groups of people and activities whose valuing of time deviates from the dominant model. For example, where people are paid for their time, calculations of profit not only take priority but also tend to conflict with the need to spend quality time in caring for children and the elderly.

Locally and globally, it is the invariable time that goes round and round in a circle that is imposed on the variable cycles of nature and social life. So long as these assumptions remain implicit they will be naturalized, and that means that they are rarely considered as subject to change and intervention.

However, if we can change the way time is conceived, a panorama of opportunities presents itself to harmonise work with wellbeing, caring, creativity and community. How so?

For business to pay workers for their time rather than the goods and services they produce, time had first to become an abstract exchange value. Only in this decontextualized form can time become commodified. The resulting equation of time with money has far-reaching consequences for the world of paid employment, which differ significantly for business and for workers.

For business, the faster something moves through the economic system, the better it is for profit. Accordingly, efficiency and profitability are tied to speed. There is constant pressure to produce more and more in ever shorter time spans. Marx theorized this process in terms of time compression.

Furthermore, when time is money, any unused time is money wasted; hence the development of our current 24/7 system with its demand for non-stop activity and availability at all times that eliminates some of the time-and-money-‘wasting’ elements of sleep, rest, play, care and volunteering.

This system also requires flexibility to respond to peaks and troughs in demand, which all too easily transforms promises of flexibility for the worker into flexibility of the worker. In addition, under this logic it makes sense to locate business where the cost of work time is lowest. For corporations, such global mobility in search of profitability is a viable proposition because employees are replaceable in their various functions, like the parts of a machine.

For workers, however, the situation is very different. Workers constantly have to synchronize the two systems of time and protect the social and environmental limits of their lived time within the commodified time of work. For them, time and place are contextual: when and where they work really matters. All hours are not the same to them; it makes a difference whether they work during the day or night, for example, and whether or not their non-working time can be coordinated with the activities of others in their family and community.

Hence, their capacity for flexibility is tied to their commitments to other people and is likely to vary over their working lives. Patterns of work and leisure matter greatly, as do co-ordination with the opening times of shops and services, and the distances between their place of work and their homes, their children’s schools, and public and civic facilities.

As contextual social beings rather than abstract entities, employees learn from the past and are motivated by their future. Over time they build up loyalties and commitments, nurture relationships, and develop specialist knowledge and skills. Past and future, therefore, are of significant relevance. Crucially, as members of communities and families, people are not exchangeable or interchangeable; instead they are unique and irreplaceable in the network of relations that make up families, workplaces and communities.

The social times of workers are lived and negotiated in conflict because the different systems of time co-exist in friction with each other and in a hierarchy of status: paid above unpaid work, for example; and highly skilled technical work that can be quantified above work at the more qualitative end of the spectrum, which tends to be predominantly occupied by service providers. Tensions arise in the interstices of these conflicts between nature, society, home, work, production, employer, employee, economic exchange and the money economy, each marked by their system-specific time characteristics.

That’s why thinking about time in a different way – and translating these ideas into practice - is central to the task of transforming work as we currently know it into something that can be more beneficial individually and collectively.

Such a process of transformation goes well beyond the standard demands for decelerating processes, shortening the working week, and creating better pay and working conditions. It also includes the recognition by employers and policy-makers that only machine time can be an abstract, empty quantity; and that all lived time, in contrast, is filled with past experiences and future anticipations; suffused with relational ties, commitments and loyalties; and inescapably tied to the rhythms of our earth, the natural environment in which we are embedded, and our bodies and social patterns.

People have evolved as rhythmic beings that are synchronised to the patterns of our earth. That’s why we react to seasonal variation, for example, and sometimes suffer from SAD (‘seasonal affective disorder’). Unlike machines that can be set to invariable and non-stop functioning, people are characterised by peaks and troughs of performance, which tend not to coincide with the economic peaks and troughs of demand. Importantly, human beings strive to combine the incompatible time systems that currently stress and stretch our lives beyond endurance into one coherent whole.

When the social relations of time are recognised in this way, inequalities take on a different hue – for example, between workers in different sectors of the economy and groups of employees such as highly paid professionals and seasonal workers on hourly contracts, or between people who are paid for their time and those who live and work outside this charmed circle, such as the elderly and the very young, single parents and young people in pockets of high unemployment. Thinking differently about time provides us with powerful levers to intervene in some of the globally distributed injustices of the working environments that exist in richer and poorer economies.

Efforts to achieve decent work, therefore, must encompass not just the quantity but also the quality of working time - not just time as a commodity but also as a lived complexity. Time-sensitive work relations should be based on an awareness of this difference between machine time and lived temporality. Understanding the limits of the commodification and compression of time, along with the impacts of their indiscriminate application in the economy, should be central to efforts to shift the balance of work experience from stress to wellbeing.


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