Morgan Stanley
  • Now, What's Next? Podcast
  • Jun 23, 2021

Searching for Balance: How and Why We Work

Transcript

Celeste Headlee:

You have to go in with open eyes and understand the monumental task ahead of you, that you're literally have been brainwashed and you have to be deprogrammed.

Sonari Glinton:

Celeste Headlee, journalist and author, is talking to you, and me, and she's talking about the forces that keep us all grinding.

Celeste Headlee:

To the point where we feel like if we're not working, we should be ashamed of ourselves. That if we're not productive, we are not valuable.

Sonari Glinton:

All right, I've been there. She's been there. There's a good chance you've been there yourself. Celeste's experience led her to write a book called "Do Nothing: How to break away from overworking, overdoing, and under living." Now do nothing sounds enticing, especially for those of us addicted to the grind culture. That guilt you feel, the need to keep working just a little bit longer, thinking that maybe it will be better tomorrow.

Celeste Headlee:

I mean, Sonari, when was that actually true? When you worked that extra two hours, and then the next day was two hours shorter? Ever?

Sonari Glinton:

Never.

Celeste Headlee:

Never.

Sonari Glinton:

No.

Celeste Headlee:

So why do we keep doing it?

Sonari Glinton:

Before the pandemic, our workdays were already long, and too often, they were getting longer. The so-called 40 hour work week for many of us was stretching to 50, 60, and even 70 hours.

Celeste Headlee:

We were already in such an epidemic of burnout globally that the WHO had recognized burnout as an actual health risk and a syndrome.

Sonari Glinton:

For a lot of us, things just got worse this last year. People working from home saw the edges of their workdays get even blurrier. Parents trying to fit in Zoom calls and Slack messages around naps, virtual school, and those sacred hours after bedtime. Frontline workers powering through their days after nights after days, then there are those of us who lost jobs and had to turn to the gig economy with this unpredictable income, hours... Actually, unpredictable everything, to be honest.

Sonari Glinton:

This past year has been hard, but it has forced us to examine how we work and why we've been doing it like this for so long.

Celeste Headlee:

We're going through life like people watching a movie with a Doritos bag. And at some point it just becomes mindless to constantly get another Dorito out of the bag. And then you get up at the end and you're like, "Oh, why do I have a stomach ache?"

Sonari Glinton:

This episode of Now What's Next, an original podcast from Morgan Stanley, we are going to put down the Doritos bag and we're taking stock of the 40 hour workweek and turning to people who've thought long and hard about making work more sustainable. From personal shifts...

Celeste Headlee:

And when I'm talking about how monumental this task is, that's what I'm talking about. This is reorienting your life.

Sonari Glinton:

To cultural shifts.

Jomar Reyes:

The CEO made the bold announcement to the company, "We're going to move to the four day work week."

Sonari Glinton:

To shifts that could change the whole economy.

Jennifer Scott:

How do we use the gig economy to create for ourselves sustainability and ownership and empowerment?

Sonari Glinton:

I'm Sonari Glinton, let's go to work.

Celeste Headlee:

I found myself at some point, so over-scheduled, so over-committed, and just so unhappy and sick. So for me, it didn't start as a book. It was just me trying to figure out what was going on and how I could solve it.

Sonari Glinton:

Celeste, the author of "Do Nothing," hit a breaking point after a speaking engagement she just couldn't cancel, even though she was very sick.

Celeste Headlee:

I was just gripped with fear that I would lose my voice, that I would sleep through the gig because you don't sleep very well when you have bronchitis, and so I was just pouring whatever over-the-counter drugs I could get into my body, just to try to get through the next day and give that speech.

Sonari Glinton:

She did it. But pushing through actually pushed her over the edge, and on the plane ride home, she felt awful.

Celeste Headlee:

I started thinking, "Why? Why is my life like this? Why did I set myself up so that I can't take a sick day?" And that's when I realized, I have to figure out what's going wrong.

Sonari Glinton:

Celeste started researching how she got there, and she quickly realized she wasn't alone. So many of us have crazy work lives that are simply unsustainable. It would help if we pause for a moment to get into the Wayback Machine and go back in time, so we can understand where our collective ideas about the working week came from. It's important to remember that living in cities and suburbs is a relatively new phenomenon.

Before the industrial revolution, work and survival were directly tied. As workers left the farm to work in factories, 80-100 hour work weeks became the norm. In 1817, a Welsh manufacturer, Robert Owen, proposed breaking the day into three equal parts; eight hours for work, eight hours for play, and eight hours for sleep.

Sonari Glinton:

Over about 100 years, that idea took hold, but slowly. Finally, it was in 1926, after the last global pandemic, after decades of fighting by labor activists, that Henry Ford was eventually convinced that workers were more productive when they didn't work until the breaking point. An eight hour workday allowed him to run three shifts in a manufacturing plant; two shifts to make the cars, one for maintenance. And in 1940, the U.S. Congress standardized the 40 hour work week. That was essentially the end of the movement to shorten work hours.

Sonari Glinton:

Back to Celeste, who came to a point when she realized something had to change.

Celeste Headlee:

Okay, this isn't sustainable. So, I'm going to quit my day job, and I'm going to focus just on writing and occasional journalism. And... I think I had this idea that a big part of the stress and overwork was because of my job or my boss, and it wasn't, because when I did that, it got worse. It got so much worse.

Sonari Glinton:

Many of us cannot quit our day jobs, but many of us can relate to what made this situation worse for Celeste, especially if you once fantasized about working from home, and then you found yourself doing just that during the pandemic.

Celeste Headlee:

Only to realize that when you work from home, you're not working from home, you're living at work.

Sonari Glinton:

Sound familiar? COVID took the "work anywhere, anytime" ethos to a new, annoying extreme.

Celeste Headlee:

It just meant that work started to claim every single corner of our lives. People would get tired of working at their dinner table or their desk, and they'd get up and take their laptop out on the porch, not realizing that what you're really doing is training your brain to think, "Oh, the porch is also a place for doing work." I mean, you can see, it's just led to a situation in which we are never relaxed.

Sonari Glinton:

Yeah. My example would be my nephew closing his work laptop and then opening his personal laptop. That's not a transition, brother.

Celeste Headlee:

Exactly, exactly.

Sonari Glinton:

Celeste says we have to remember that technology is just a tool.

Celeste Headlee:

And if it's stressing you out, that simply means you're using it wrong. It's a user error, what everybody hates to hear from their IT department. It's just user error and you just have to fix the way that you're using it. Our brains have simply not evolved to allow us to, in a healthy way, have our hands on a tool all day long.

Sonari Glinton:

Celeste points out that our brains can't really distinguish between work and play when it comes to how we use our devices. That means that Slack and Sudoku merge into one. Creating untouchable time away from work, away from electronics, that goes a long way to relieving stress. When you're doom scrolling for updates or just on Instagram, it keeps you in sort of a heightened state, flight or fight.

Sonari Glinton:

For me, I often go on long walks and I try not to listen to anything or anyone.

Celeste Headlee:

It's so great. I'm so glad that you said this. Pretty much everybody does, or very close to everyone, can find 5, 10, 15 minutes and let those minutes be untouchable. Those are for you and you alone for no intrusions by, as you say, the news, man-made sounds, anything else. Let them simply be free from electronics, just you and the world.

Sonari Glinton:

But untouchable time isn't going to solve all of our overtime problems. For a lot of us, working more sustainably, which means not burning out, means understanding the pressure we're putting on ourselves and why. Something I kind of know firsthand.

Sonari Glinton:

It was around my 46th birthday that I was like, "Oh, I'm not an underachiever." Literally, that's the like—

Celeste Headlee:

You had thought before that that you were?

Sonari Glinton:

Yes, my entire life.

Sonari Glinton:

And Celeste can relate.

Celeste Headlee:

Yeah. I mean, I feel you hard because my grandfather was the Dean of African-American composers. He's genius with a capital G. My great-grandmother was born in slavery and then went on to have her life story read into the congressional record. So yeah, I also was like, "I just work a job."

Sonari Glinton:

The idea that Celeste is getting to, is that we're not allowed to feel burnt out because our elders didn't have it as good. Or because we think that the work we're doing just isn't as meaningful or important.

Celeste Headlee:

And you know what, honestly, it was thinking about my family that helped me forgive myself and also realize that I was doing it wrong. Because when I started reading my grandfather's journals and stuff, he did a lot of nothing.

Sonari Glinton:

Now, by nothing she means he grew vegetables, he had hobbies, he did things other than work and was still extraordinarily successful. So what's going on with us? Celeste says it all goes back to what she said at the start, our culture makes us feel like we can't stop grinding.

Celeste Headlee:

This is all working on our subconscious, that when you sit down and watch a movie or check your social media feeds or any of the other things that you do, you should feel guilty.

Sonari Glinton:

This makes me think about children. One of my favorite questions to ask kids is what they want to be when they grow up, and you know what's funny? They almost always rhyme off some job like pilot, doctor, astronaut. Here's an idea, what about being, I don't know, happy?

Celeste Headlee:

We need to really examine our goals because most of us are living by means goals. They're means to an end and we've lost sight of what is that end. Is it to be happy? Is it to be healthy? Is it to have a loving family? And when I'm talking about how monumental this task is, that's what I'm talking about. This is reorienting your life.

Sonari Glinton:

Reorienting our lives, rethinking how and when and why we're working the hours we do. Sometimes it takes a personal health crisis to start asking those questions. Sometimes it takes a harrowing national experience like 9/11. Sometimes, well, it seems like it takes a pandemic. And as strange as it may sound, the breaking point so many of us have reached working through this past year, that's exactly where Celeste finds the hope.

Celeste Headlee:

I think globally, and especially in the United States, people are daily coming to that realization I had in that plane and they're thinking, "Oh God, I can't keep doing this. I can't keep doing this. I can't keep doing this." That means that you either have to give in to it, which I hope nobody does. Or you have to think, how do I change my daily life so that this doesn't happen again?

Sonari Glinton:

No matter who you are or what you do, you've likely asked yourself some version of that question over the last year. That personal question has led to a lot of difficult conversations around childcare, family leave, paid sick days and a new focus on mental wellness. All things we've talked about already in this podcast. And yet, most of us don't have control over our work hours and can't just clock off when we've had enough. But as Jomar Reyes can attest, that doesn't mean big sustainable work-life changes are impossible, changes that can have an impact on a whole organization.

Sonari Glinton:

In 2015, Jomar Reyes started working for IIH Nordic. That's a Danish digital marketing agency that charges clients by the hour. He was then the head of events and partner relations. And when Jomar learned about the company's goal to shift to a four-day work week, every Friday off, without paying employees less or making them clock 16 hour days...

Jomar Reyes:

I thought, this is crazy. We're an agency, we rely on billable hours as well, so I was, to be honest, I was... quite skeptical. I thought there's got to be some catch there.

Sonari Glinton:

So what was the catch?

Jomar Reyes:

Okay, here was the catch, as a company we had to figure out how to do it. Does that make sense?

Sonari Glinton:

It makes sense if you know that in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries it's way more common for companies to have a so-called flat structure.

Jomar Reyes:

The student worker can talk to the CEO and tell them what they think can be improved, and that would be unheard of in other cultures, in Japan and possibly the U.S. and stuff like that. But it's just how it is.

Sonari Glinton:

So after the head of the company made the decision to shift to a four-day work week, Jomar and his coworkers identified 350 problems that needed to be solved to reach that goal. And in order to solve them, and this is really important, the CEO gave them dedicated time.

Jomar Reyes:

So once a month, they had tools down and what they would call that was Innovation Friday. So Innovation Friday meant you don't do client work and all that stuff, but you look at processes, process improvement, and you break up into different task force groups on that Friday and then you presented at the end of the day, what you're going to do and all that stuff.

Sonari Glinton:

They discovered ways to shorten meetings and keep them focused, which included sending an agenda with every invitation.

Jomar Reyes:

If you received a meeting invite and it didn't have a clear agenda, you had every right to reject that meeting and say, "Please," and the CEO did this a couple of times where he sent it out to people and they rejected it to him. They said, "Sorry, this does not fit the standards that we'd agreed upon." And when you have shorter meetings, it's amazing how you are smarter about your time.

Sonari Glinton:

They tackled distraction and interruption with the Pomodoro work sprint technique. It involves headphones, a 25 minute timer, and a red light to show others you're focusing. Now they discovered how essential it was that everyone in the company buy into this shifting culture.

Jomar Reyes:

I had a colleague who said he tried doing the Pomodoro method in his old job, but people kept on tapping him on the shoulder, even though he had a timer there. But there wasn't the understanding.

Jomar Reyes:

You would just come off as a real a-hole as a person because you're doing something against the culture. So it has to be a company shift, culture wise. And come from the top, because if it comes from the top, then it's gospel to everyone.

Sonari Glinton:

Denmark already had an efficient work culture that was conducive to working smarter. Plus, the process of figuring out how to do a four day work week created exponential value.

Jomar Reyes:

Because we made improvements where information and what we were doing was more transparent across the company, we understood what each other's challenges were. I think the strategy was, it would help retain and keep good employees, but also attract good talent.

Sonari Glinton:

Reducing work hours was good for business, and other companies are figuring that out as well. Last year, Microsoft Japan released a report that productivity went up 40% when they shortened their work week.

Sonari Glinton:

The Spanish government recently announced a trial that would support companies across the country, in reducing working hours, as a means to, among other things, increase their productivity.

Sonari Glinton:

Sweden found that nurses benefited mentally and physically, and performed better, when they worked less hours.

Sonari Glinton:

So what's stopping it from becoming a thing stateside as well?

Sonari Glinton:

Labor economists I talked to say it'll take a lot more data to sway most companies. But many point to something Celeste talked about: we value work itself, not as a means to an end, but as an end in and of itself. That mentality really took hold after World War II. But as the Boomers retire and Gen Z-ers flood the workplace, will their reputation for wanting more work-life balance create lasting change?

Sonari Glinton:

In the meantime, we can look at companies like IIH Nordic to see what is possible. Over the course of two years, their Innovation Fridays went from monthly, to weekly. And then they were eliminated altogether. A four day workweek with the same pay, same benefits, same 25 days of vacation — God love Denmark! — without working extra hours Monday through Thursday.

Sonari Glinton:

Then the question becomes, what do you do with a free Friday?

Jomar Reyes:

I think, in some ways my wife was the best beneficiary of the four day work week because I had this nice little list of things to do, which I was happy to do. It meant that we had a nice clear run for the weekend.

Sonari Glinton:

A three-day weekend every week? But still, let's think about what you lose when you prioritize efficiency. Some of the solutions like the Pomodoro sprints had an unexpected effect.

Jomar Reyes:

The sound level did go down at the office. And it was something that, as a group, we quickly realized that, okay, people aren't laughing as much. So it did, I think in the music terms, it's like it's a compressor. It eliminates the highs and eliminates the lows.

Sonari Glinton:

To bring the laughs back, they made a lot of extra social stuff happen in a really deliberate way. Like weekly Bar Thursdays, or Lucky Lunches, where you ate with a random colleague.

Jomar Reyes:

For me, I have no reason to say this was a great thing or whatever, but I really think it's something that companies should look at seriously and use some of the statistics that are available now, having done this experiment.

Sonari Glinton:

As for Jomar, he moved on to start his own company.

Jomar Reyes:

I do not work a four day work week. For anyone who's ever done their own business, you live and breathe it. You love it.

Jomar Reyes:

But what is good is I still do work sprints. I have adjusted my Gmail calendar to only do 20 minute and 40 minute meetings. So I'm taking with me a lot of the things that I've learned.

Jomar Reyes:

We were lucky because it was also, we had a level of empowerment and a level of autonomy as employees. And it's not every company CEO that's going to give up their power to the people. And that's not going to happen overnight.

Sonari Glinton:

Giving power to the people? We know that may not happen overnight. But times are changing, especially this past year. Some employers are experimenting with better conditions and benefits.

Sonari Glinton:

But elsewhere, more and more workers are fighting for more sustainable and safer work. Over the pandemic, people stayed at home and ordered in via apps. People lost jobs and looked for flexible, easily accessible work via apps, and gig work exploded. But this kind of work has its own set of challenges.

Jennifer Scott:

I'm Jennifer Scott. I'm a gig worker and I deliver food and sometimes groceries, on my bike, for apps like Uber Eats and DoorDash and Foodora. And I am President of Gig Workers United, fighting for workers' rights.

Sonari Glinton:

Jennifer has been a bike courier in Toronto for over four years and rode many miles before becoming an organizer. But one thing that has stayed consistent? Well, there is no consistency.

Jennifer Scott:

I think about what it means to have a 40 hour work week and have weekends off. That sounds kind of like a dream, because I never know how long I'm going to be out working. I never know if I'm going to spend my weekend trying to make up for the rest of this week.

Sonari Glinton:

Like a lot of people who come to gig work, Jennifer had a full-time job before, but she needed more money. Bike delivery was something she knew she could start right away. And she recalls one of her first shifts.

Sonari Glinton:

Sitting on her bike, ready to go, but no orders coming in. Nada.

Jennifer Scott:

And I remember, I still do this now, "Is there something wrong with my phone? Did my phone get shut off?" And I remember sitting at this intersection, and it's hot, and I'm thinking about how I will make up this money that I'm not making for this, what ended up being an hour and a half while I just sat there waiting for an order. And there was nothing I could do to make one come.

Sonari Glinton:

Eventually, Jennifer lost her full-time job. So she turned to the part-time job she already had, food delivery. And she found ways to make the system work better for her. But still after years, it's unpredictable, even on a good day.

Jennifer Scott:

And so if I go out in the morning on a day and I say, okay, I'm going to work for six hours today, and it ends up being busy and consistent, then I'll stay out for maybe 10 because I can't guarantee that it will be busy and consistent tomorrow or next week. But it is today. And so I should keep working.

Jennifer Scott:

And that's where things get a little bit scary.

Sonari Glinton:

Scary because she'll push past her physical limit to make as much money as possible that day. And all that uncertainty has an impact on other parts of her life as well.

Jennifer Scott:

It can result in precarious access to food or precarious housing, because no matter how hard you try, you're not guaranteed an income and you don't quite know what it's going to be before you earn it.

Sonari Glinton:

Remember Celeste Headlee? When her work life became unsustainable, she made changes to control it. Workers in Jennifer's position, though, don't have that option. And yet it's the very promise of flexibility that makes gig work attractive.

Jennifer Scott:

Flexible in regards to the gig economy is such an interesting word. It's the word that apps always use, and the idea of what that means is what draws us to this work. But we learn that the flexibility that we experience is really how flexible we are to work within the confines of when it is lucrative to work. And so working full time as a gig worker can honestly mean clocking between 50 and 80 hours a week, and when you're working 80 hours a week, I mean, that's not great for you. It's actually really horrible, but it was the sort of promise of opportunity that kept me.

Sonari Glinton:

But for Jennifer and many other gig workers, it's more than the promise of money that keeps her going. Jennifer remembers a recent delivery that stands out.

Jennifer Scott:

And I can see this woman standing on the porch, and she has three children who all seem to be under the age of six, and they are just so excited to see me, and also she looks very tired. And they run out to me and they're like, "Do you have our burgers? Do you have my milkshake?" And I'm like, "Yes, I do." And there's so much joy in that moment. I feel great making these kids feel happy, and they're so excited, and I want to enjoy that.

Sonari Glinton:

She sees her work as a necessity for the office workers who start at 5:00 AM and get a hot breakfast delivered, for people who are genuinely home-bound. In fact, during the pandemic, many places designated bike couriers as essential workers.

Jennifer Scott:

And there is a feeling of pride in supporting your community, and the knowledge that delivery work like this is a form of care work. And so I think a lot of the reason that we stay in this industry is because we think that it is meaningful, and we think that if there were some changes to how it works, it would be a good job.

Sonari Glinton:

In February of 2020, Jennifer and other bike couriers who work for the Foodora app won a precedent-setting case at the Provincial Labor Relations Board. It ruled that couriers like Jennifer were not independent contractors. They were dependent contractors, more like employees than freelancers. That ruling opened up the possibility for Canadian gig workers to join a union, setting the stage for their US counterparts. Now, if they wanted to, couriers could work together to bargain with apps for better working conditions, and they wanted to.

Jennifer Scott:

Incredibly, it's 89.6% in favor of a union. That's a feat. That's a huge percentage of people voting in one way. The day that we found out that workers voted yes for this union, Foodora had already declared bankruptcy and actually had already exited the country.

Sonari Glinton:

It was a bittersweet moment for Jennifer and her fellow organizers, but then they saw an opportunity.

Jennifer Scott:

And so... not long after Foodora left in the summer, we had a few general meetings where we talked about, "What if we were to build a co-op? What would that look like?"

Sonari Glinton:

Workers' co-ops have been around for a lot longer than the 40-hour work week. The idea here is, workers own the business. The co-op Jennifer is helping to build would partner directly with restaurants and retailers without the use of the big apps. Their main aim is to provide a livable wage and a predictable, sustainable way of making a living. Now, co-ops are popular in food service, healthcare, even the tech world, but co-ops are a very new thing for gig workers.

Jennifer Scott:

Yeah. So today where we are, we're still in the startup phase. We're not able to employ 100 couriers full-time, but that's the job of the co-op, and the worker owners who are part of it.

Sonari Glinton:

In addition to the Foodsters United Co-Op, Jennifer is leading Gig Workers United. That's a Toronto union for all app-based couriers.

Now, it's not just couriers unionizing in Canada. The US workers have been organizing in industries previously not known to be union-friendly. In January, more than 600 Google employees in the US voted to unionize, while workers at an Alabama Amazon plant voted against a union in April after a protracted and very expensive campaign. And a recent Gallup poll shows the highest support for unions in the US in almost 20 years, at 65%.

Jennifer Scott:

I think that we stand at a precipice of change for labor rights for workers. Are we going to maintain the same standards that we have, or improve on them? Or are we going to see ourselves go back to maybe what work was like in the early 1900s?

Sonari Glinton:

Think of the decades — no, centuries — that workers pushed to shorten work hours in the first place. Jennifer sees her work as an extension of that movement.

Jennifer Scott:

I think, and I believe that it's true, a number of people will become organizers, will become community leaders, will become folks who help to bring change to our society, and they will be people who started as bike couriers or car couriers in the gig economy. And I think that that's a very exciting future.

Sonari Glinton:

As far as the future of the work week goes-

Celeste Headlee:

I do think there has been an awakening, if there is a slight silver lining.

Sonari Glinton:

... an awakening that has led us to rethink the hours we're putting in and why, and an awakening that has led us to consider better work alternatives that are already working elsewhere.

Jomar Reyes:

And it's a good feeling to look back and seeing that in some ways, have we changed the working culture in the world? I think so.

Sonari Glinton:

An awakening among workers who want sustainable and safer jobs.

Jennifer Scott:

We're sort of envisioning a way to change the trajectory of the quality of our lives, significantly so.

Sonari Glinton:

The pandemic helped get us here and it's up to us to work towards what's next.

Celeste Headlee:

The last thing I will say, if there's anything I wish would die and burn in the fiery pits of hell, it's the phrase, "Rise and grind." I mean, think about that, people.

Sonari Glinton:

Come on. Seriously. Think about it, people. This has been Now What's Next, an original podcast from Morgan Stanley. On our next episode, the surprising ways the pandemic could affect the way we care for our elderly. I'm Sonari Glinton, off the clock. Thanks for listening.

Industrialists like Henry Ford made the 40-hour work week popular in the 1920s. A hundred years later, as we reflect on how the global pandemic changed our work lives, we meet people questioning the 40-hour standard and searching for more sustainable options.

Host Sonari Glinton talks to Celeste Headlee, journalist and author of Do Nothing, about burnout, and how that led her to reorient her life and approach to work. Next, we meet Jomar Reyes, who worked at Danish digital marketing agency IIH Nordic as they transitioned to a 4-day work week. Finally, Jennifer Scott is a bike courier and labor activist in Toronto and her work schedule makes 9-5 look like a dream. Jennifer explains how gig workers are fighting for more sustainable careers.

 

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