Many of us working at the University of London feel pressure at the moment to work extra hours beyond their contracts to meet increasingly burdensome demands and expectations, and it is sometimes difficult to take a step back and realise that this is a) not necessary and b) not something you need to put up with in silence!

If in the basement of Senate House you should come across the skeleton of a woman that’s about 10,000 years old you might idly wonder if she belonged to a hunter-gatherer group or a farming community that grew grain. Simply examine the skeleton’s back, knees and toes: if they’re deformed it’s because the woman spent many hours rocking back and forth grinding grain, to give her severe RSI.[1]

It’s widely accepted that the gradual move from a mixed lifestyle of hunting and harvesting to the backbreaking raising of a monocrop was a terrible deal for humans. Hunter-gatherers were healthier, bigger and less prone to disease than their counterparts. Their lifestyle was more varied and, arguably, more skilled. Long hours doing the same thing are bad for us physically, mentally and emotionally.

In modern times we can congratulate ourselves on many achievements: The Daily Mail, Candy Crush Saga, BaeWatch. How do our working lives compare with the hunter-gatherer? The University of London is obviously not the worst place in Britain to work: just ask fruit pickers, workers in massage parlours who rely on tips, or many others. But owners of massage parlours do not generally crow about work-life balance so perhaps we can and should hold UoL to a higher standard.

The University has, for several years, operated a “recruitment chill”. This normally means that if someone leaves they are not replaced for a minimum of six months. Who does their work? Who do you think? Were these colleagues previously sitting around looking to fill their time? Scarcely. Were they already in fact overworked? You betcha. The recruitment chill should more honestly be called the Exploit Existing Workers Doctrine.

A number of people in my department regularly work more than 70 hours a week. Because they love the job? Not so much. Chronic under-resourcing means they have to do it or everything would break down (and they would be blamed for it). What’s being selected for here is goodwill and self-sacrifice. Those who won’t do it will leave or push work onto others. A cash- and resource-rich institution is making its most dedicated workers ill through excessive hours in the name of “bearing down on costs” or similar self-serving nonsense.

Leaving aside the morality of this, it’s nonsensical on a practical level. It is well known that the quality of work falls as people become more and more tired. That’s kind of obvious but Quartz recently reported on a study that shows how quickly this happens.[2] If the eight-hour work day produces low-quality work what effect is the recruitment chill having, on top of all the other extra loads being rammed onto our shoulders?

If you want a quick way to know if an institution actually cares about the quality of work being done there look no further than open-plan offices. These are such a bad idea that kids today probably learn “don’t work in an open-plan office” from their parents at about the same time they learn “don’t drink bleach”. Open-plan offices reduce work and reduce communication between colleagues; the only thing they increase is sickness rates. [3]

Despite this the University has put a lot of effort into creating a giant open-plan office in Senate House’s basement. In a gesture of solidarity the managerial elite of the University have moved down there too. But open-plan is especially harmful for deep, thoughtful work, so the output of our senior managements remains unaffected.

If anyone complains about this situation the managerial response varies between sympathetic head-nodding, which does very little to reduce anyone’s workload, and injunctions to think creatively about that workload, to ensure that you are working smarter not harder. To be fair the mantra work smarter not harder is pretty useful: it tells you that the person saying it is an imbecile whose views can be conveniently ignored.

If there are any humans left in 10,000 years’ time they can examine our skeletons. If they’re deformed in the hands, wrists and shoulders it’s because of RSI, produced by long hours at a computer or tablet. I don’t think they’ll be able to tell if we were working smarter not harder.

Are you forced to work beyond your contractual hours because of workload? You’re not alone. Contact uol@iwgb.org.uk if you want to discuss this issue in confidence.

1. James C. Scott, Against the Grain, p.83.

2https://qz.com/work/1561830/why-the-eight-hour-workday-doesnt-work/

3. See, for example, https://m.signalvnoise.com/the-open-plan-office-is-a-terrible–horrible–no-good–very-bad-idea/, or just ask your parents if going open-plan/drinking bleach is a smart move.

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