In scientific article after article, newspapers and magazine stories, books, documentaries, and with our own naked eyes, we are witnessing the impact of climate disruption, what Dr. William E. Rees calls eco-overshoot. Polar ice shelves are falling away, forests are burning, and the coasts are flooding. Humanity’s current predicament is frightening, and the future seems much worse.
As the sword of Damocles hangs over civilization’s collective head, we would expect high times for the people of today, would we not? Sure, our 21st-century lifestyle is at the expense of future generations; our children and grandchildren will foot the bill, but we, as a global civilization, are generally living meaningful and engaged existences, so it was at least partially justified. Perhaps we flew too close to the sun, but we enjoyed this life of hyper-consumerism and work-hard-play-hard mentality. Or is that another myth we have been laboring under?
Since 2009, Gallup has published a State of the Global Workplace report analyzing the state of employee engagement, satisfaction, and well-being across the globe. The report is based on surveys conducted with millions of employees in over 140 countries, making it a valuable resource for understanding employee sentiment and identifying trends in the workplace. The most recent interaction of the report (2023) boasted the highest worldwide level of employee engagement at a whopping 23%, up from an all-time low of 12% in 2009 when Gallup started measuring engagement. Viewed through another lens, there might not be too much to celebrate: 77% of workers (who are willing to admit it) are “psychologically disconnected” from work and doing the absolute minimum to get by – so-called “quiet quitting” or worse; 18% of workers identify as “loud quitters” or actively unengaged . But then again, looking at this data through yet another lens, maybe there is room for optimism.
When around 80% of the global workforce is disengaged from their work, there is an opportunity for change. Real change that not only improves work culture but offers a path to a more sustainable future. Of course, businesses and organizations employing this sea of unengaged workers are trying all kinds of schemes to re-engage employees and get people back to the office  by making work more meaningful, more like “life”, and offices more like “home.” But, work isn’t life, life is life, and people are unengaged because they aren’t afforded the time to engage in a meaningful existence. Eighty-five percent of the Gallup report responses offered by those considered to be quiet quitting — which comprises the majority of employees — were related to well-being/work-life balance . So, unsurprisingly, the answer to more engaged work is less work.
A person who doesn’t have a sufficient amount of time for relationships with family and friends, neighbors, nature, civic engagement, personal cultivation, the things that bring fulfillment, doesn’t walk into the office on Monday morning with the mindset to truly engage with work because they’re not engaged with life. How much time and energy does the average person working 40 hours a week, getting to work, and worrying about work have for life activities and taking action against the existential issues facing humanity? None. When effectively the entire modern working world is not working, we are enjoying passive entertainment or other versions of screen time to rest just long enough for another meaningless day. Here are some selected quotes from the report:
“By the time I’m done with work, I’m so exhausted that some days I don’t have the energy to hold a conversation. So, over time, I’ve had family [and] friends accuse me of not being socially receptive when they try to reach out.” – [Ibid]
“I used to come home thinking only about work. I used to unload everything on my husband. Totally unsatisfied. Then, when I changed roles, it got a little better, but I was still unsatisfied.” – [Ibid]
“My work does not give me the opportunity to go to church, visit family members, or travel for a while.” – [Ibid]
The solution to worker and employer engagement is simple: offer a better life-work balance, give people more time away from work and they’ll give you more when at work. There is a long history of championing a more manageable work week. The economist John Maynard Keynes famously prophesied that by 2030, people would work only 15 hours per week, and people would have more time for personal cultivation and consume less. In 1930, the Kellogg Corporation instituted a 6-hour work day and a 30-hour week that continued, for the better part, until the 1980s . But there are high cultural hurdles to clear in a work-more-consume-more culture; if there is going to be change, it has to come from the individual (tap yourself on the head and the heart). People who truly care about a sustainable future have to choose time, and life, over money and consumption.
The potential benefits of working fewer hours are vast. A shorter workweek enhances both individual and societal well-being by fostering more time for meaningful connections and personal cultivation and reducing environmental impact by facilitating mindful consumption. Anna Coote, Principal Fellow at the New Economics Foundation, gave a compelling TEDx Talk arguing that shorter working weeks would have a range of social and environmental advantages – as seen in the video below.
 Gallup. (2023). State of the Global Workplace Report. Gallup Inc.
Joe McCullagh is the founder of RheoWork. RheoWork is a non-profit organization committed to building a sustainable future by changing the way people work. Our mission is to standardize a 3-day (24-hour) work week with 8 weeks of vacation for all. We are building a platform for like-minded people to connect and form work units with other members. Working units will fill traditional single-person positions, providing work-unit members with more time to engage in life. RheoWork believes that people with a healthy life-work balance will provide time for civic engagement, social well-being, mindful consumption, and personal cultivation. Radically shortening the work week won’t solve the predicament facing humanity but it might just give us enough time back to make the needed changes.
The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.