What The Fight Against Overwork Overlooks

Overwork has long been cast as a choice borne out of passion. For legions of workers, it’s anything but.

What The Fight Against Overwork Overlooks
[Photo: Flickr user Joris Louwes]

In Britain, one of the country’s prominent physicians, Dr. John Ashton, president of the U.K. Faculty of Public Health, recently called for the country to establish a four-day workweek, citing concerns about the adverse health effects of overwork, such as high blood pressure, sleep problems, and increased rates of infection due to stress.


Taking a page from the labor movement’s old playbook, Ashton also framed a four-day workweek as a means to reduce unemployment. He emphasized that “maldistribution of work,” in which large numbers of workers are overworked while many remain unemployed, leads to stress-related health problems among both groups.

Americans are also at least starting to consider the benefits of reduced working hours. But one thing that the pushback against the culture of overwork in today’s knowledge economy tends to obscure is that it is, after all, a culture—something that can be opted out of—and not, as overwork is for many others, a nonnegotiable reality.

The Unfair Contest Over Who Can Sleep Less

Recently, Al Jazeera America profiled a Portland tech startup with a four-day workweek. The founders affirmed that their workers took few sick days and were highly productive.

Even several major investment banks have begun requiring that their young analysts, for whom 100-hour workweeks are routine, take one day off per week to rest. Even Marissa Mayer, she of the legendary 130-hour workweek, has extended parental leave at Yahoo! since taking the helm (but then declined to fully utilize it herself).


One dimension that these examples share has to do with class. Workers at the tech startup, Yahoo!, and Wall Street banks are all largely college-educated, professional workers enjoying benefits like employee-sponsored retirement plans and health coverage. It’s certainly true that professional workers, particularly in tech and finance, put in long hours; it’s part of the culture of those sectors, a point of pride as much as an acknowledged detriment to health and human relationships.

But as much as those workers humblebrag or talk about working 80 hours a week or more–heroically ignoring their bodies’ cries for sleep–taken as a whole, one class of workers sleeps even less.

As Olga Khazan reports for The Atlantic, in the United States, about half of the people in households netting $30,000 per year or less sleep six or fewer hours every night, while only about a third of those in households netting $75,000 or more get the same paltry amount. In fact, the Gallup numbers Khazan cites reveal that the greater a household’s income, the more hours per night its members are likely to sleep.

Despite the popular trope of passionate professionals laboring deep into the night, these figures show that once households achieve a baseline level of material comfort, they manage to rest rather than wear themselves down even further with extra work.

That’s because salaried workers in the knowledge economy tend to earn enough to meet basic needs from a single job. By contrast, low- and minimum-wage jobs pay so little that workers often must string together two or more of these jobs to make ends meet.

Khazan chronicles the day of a man in his thirties who works two jobs at John F. Kennedy International Airport. He wakes before dawn to catch a 5 a.m. bus from his apartment in Queens to get to his 7 a.m. shift as an airport wheelchair attendant. He works until 3 p.m., then has a half-hour break before he begins his next job, corralling luggage carts. His second shift ends at 10 p.m., after which he has another long bus ride home, catches a few hours of sleep, and begins again. His two jobs net him about $500 per week.


Contrary to the experiences of workers whose passion drives them to work into their sleeping hours, it turns out that the workers who sleep the least are those who literally cannot afford a full night’s rest, time to nurture relationships, or an hour to pursue other interests.

As Khazan puts it, “Though we often praise white-collar ‘superwomen’ who ‘never sleep’ and juggle legendary careers with busy families, it’s actually people with the least money who get the least amount of sleep.”

Two Shifts, No Choices

Behind every superworker who garners breathless praise for single-handedly, unsleepingly having built something are the much less mentioned service workers who got up even earlier so that they could pour the white-collar heroes’ coffee at Starbucks at 6 a.m. or clean out airplane cabins for their 7 a.m. flights. True, these crack-of-dawn shifts typically end at mid-afternoon—just in time for another shift at another job.

The point, though, isn’t just to rethink whom our culture decides to praise and how. It’s that overwork itself has long been cast as a choice–and a positive one, borne out of love, at that. But the truth is that for so many, there is no choice.


Meeting basic needs like securing food and shelter requires abandoning significant elements of personal care, such as sleep and fostering human relationships. Even though employers have long known that ensuring that workers rest and that paying them enough so they can nurture their whole lives (or at least not harm their productivity), our habit of valuing activity purely for its own sake obscures this truth.

Some must always wake up early or stay up late so that others may work or relax. Modern work cultures furnish us with plenty of ideological lenses that let us choose to see this in a positive light. One of them in particular—the adage to “do what you love”—allows us to valorize elite workers, those who can overwork, and largely ignore those who must overwork.

Hopefully, we’ll be able to look forward to a future when the romance of overwork is seen for the absurdity it is–and where there’s enough sleep to go around.

This article is adapted from Do What You Love: And Other Lies About Success and Happiness (c) 2015 by Miya Tokumitsu. It is reprinted by permission of Regan Arts.