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Work hard, play harder!

Old Humphrey in his 1842 book Soldiers and Sailors tries to ascertain whether men of the army or the navy both work and play harder. He concludes:

True. They work hard, play hard, and fight hard; but, say what you will, it is not all sunshine with soldiers and sailors. A soldier, on parade or on a review day, looks like a man of leisure, … but see him in war, marching through miry roads, panting with heat or numbed with cold, up early and late …Neither does honest Jack lead a life of ease, or sleep upon roses. See him in the north, when the rigging of his ship is hung with icicles; in the east and west, when the deck is almost as hot as a baker’s oven; holding his weary midnight watch in the calm, and reefing the fluttering sail in the storm.

According to a recent article in The Economist things have changed over the last two centuries; nowadays the richer you are, the less time you have for leisure. This trend is in direct contrast to how things worked until recently, when the number of hours worked was negatively correlated to a person’s wealth. The tables have now turned, and it is no longer a social stigma to admit to spending long hours working.

So what contributed to this shift? The Economist identifies three key aspects. First, the “substitution effect”, which means it is expensive for high-earners not to be working. Second, long hours of leisure are no longer perceived “a badge of honour”. Third, the significant financial rewards achievable in our “winner-takes-all” competitive environment allows no time to sit on one’s laurels.

I would venture to add a fourth aspect: ‘The Blackberry Curse’. The mobile-, internet-driven world, in which we now live, makes it increasingly difficult not to be at work. You can now easily come home, join the family for dinner and then watch a film, ostensibly with the family, whilst in fact you, in your virtual office, are tapping away to your colleagues in Hong Kong on a laptop or smartphone.

I realised the true power of The Blackberry Curse when climbing Mount Kilimanjaro last year. Half way up, I received a text from a Swiss colleague enquiring why I had not responded to his email flagged ‘urgent’. I replied saying I couldn’t access my emails as there was – surprise surprise – no 3G coverage at 4000m in the middle of Africa. After a few questions about my whereabouts and route, in less than an hour he texted me back with detailed instruction of where to find sufficient network near our next camp – out of Africa, back to the office

What the Economist doesn’t emphasise enough though is that this phenomenon is restricted to advanced economies and only certain industries. I’m sure I don’t need to say that there are still many people undertaking long hours, and long weeks, of back-breaking work. Additionally, the article glosses over the importance of a personal work ethic and – unlike Old Humphrey – the stereotypes of what is hard work. There are people across society who work hard and get bored by a lack of work or mental stimulation. Yet, there will always be those who abuse the system, whether through the UK’s generous benefits system, or by expertly delegating tasks whilst they swan off at midday for lunch and an afternoon of golf.

I definitely fall into the category of those who enjoy spending long hours in the office, as I still get the buzz and drive from the work I do. That doesn’t mean I don’t relish the opportunity of going on holiday, switching off and recharging my batteries once in a while! But each time I need to go that bit further, deeper or higher to escape The Blackberry Curse!

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