Redistribution of labour

With working hours and unemployment on the rise, Harriet Bradley argues that it's time to consider the logical alternative: job-sharing

October 27, 2011



Credit: Marcus Butt


"I have been working 70 to 80 hours a week. I don't always manage even a week off in the summer. Yet I always feel hopelessly behind with my job." This comment from a recent survey of academic staff will strike a chord with many readers. Over the past 30 years there has been an inexorable increase in workloads, caused by retrenchments and the changing conditions of work in higher education: larger classes, more assessments, ever-increasing bureaucracy, multiplying committees, demands for high-quality publications and attendance at prestigious international conferences, and requirements to grapple with user-unfriendly IT management systems. And that still leaves those little things we used to do more willingly when we had more time: references for students, book and article reviews, reports for publishers, external examining, and commenting on colleagues' writings.

What was once vaguely containable in a 9-to-5 regime has expanded, so we must work evenings and weekends. We are trapped in a structurally embedded "long hours culture", where hours in excess of the 48 stipulated in the European Union Working Time Directive have become normalised. Yet, while everybody grumbles and deplores, nobody seriously tries to do anything about it. A young female lecturer of my acquaintance who tried to keep her weekends free was told by her dean that she could not expect promotion if she took that attitude. And it is a sad truth that many academics are workaholics, literally addicted, as managers trying to remove some tasks from them have witnessed.

"Workload creep" has recently been exacerbated by job losses across the sector. My institution shed some 240 posts last year through voluntary and compulsory redundancies to meet programmes of salary savings and support service efficiency. This scenario of overwork and redundancy - replicated in many other sectors - can be set against the most recent unemployment figures, the highest for 23 years; a national rate of 8 per cent and youth unemployment at a horrific 21 per cent. Talented graduates join lengthening jobcentre queues, while people over 55 (including many redundant lecturers) may struggle to find decent employment ever again.

Am I the only person to find this deeply irrational? A large chunk of the population has more work than they can cope with, while another section is desperate for employment. Family lives suffer as the unemployed face poverty, debt and even homelessness, while the overemployed are stressed, illness-prone and hardly see their children. While universities, like other organisations, purport to support family-friendly policies, the reality is that the long-hours culture is highly disadvantageous for women with caring responsibilities.

Is there any credible alternative, in this time of austerity and recession, to these toxic choices? I believe there is. What is needed is a fairer redistribution of labour. I would like to see employers and organisations constructing jobs that can fit into 48 hours and taking on extra staff to carry out the uncovered tasks. This should combine with greater flexibility and more part-time working (preferred by many mothers with young children), job-sharing and term-time working. Is this realistic? Yes, for some. Last year, when five lecturers in one University of Bristol department were faced with one redundancy, they all opted to move to an 80 per cent contract. When I turned 60 and was suffering from stress-related health symptoms, I moved to 60 per cent. I have never looked back. Yes, my income dropped, which necessitated lifestyle changes - no more meals out, fewer holidays and trips. But it was worth it to regain some degree of control over my life and have more time with family and friends. The truism is true: nobody on their deathbed wishes they had spent more time at the office.

Such considerations are timely in view of the current University and College Union action on working to contract. Colleagues have told me it is impossible to comply without damaging their research careers. It may be too much to ask of individuals. But if staff agreed collectively not to attend meetings or go to seminars or conferences that take their labour over 48 hours a week, it might force universities to admit how they survive by milking employees' goodwill.

We need to turn our backs on what feminist scholar Cynthia Cockburn has called "heroic masculinity", admitting that as human beings we need time "to stand and stare". We need to raise the value of part-time work and job-sharing and, as T.S. Eliot said, "redeem the time".

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