Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours restRobert Owen, circa. 1817
Trades Unionist, Socialist and Cooperative movements cannot trace their roots to just one person or even a small group. Over generations, countless individuals have come together to stand in solidarity to fight for a better, fairer, more equitably world. Some battles have been won, many more hurdles are still to be overcome.
There are, however, some people who can claim to having influenced the course of social progress more than others. Robert Owen, the Welsh son of a saddler who went on to become a factory owner and social campaigner is one such man. Cited as the inspiration for the first co-operatives, and arguably can be called the first socialist, Owen is a fascinating and inspiring character.
One of Owen’s many campaigns focused on the length of shifts people worked in the new factories of the industrial revolution. At the time, it was not uncommon for people to work up to sixteen hours a day, six days a week. He pushed for the eight hour day, his slogan quoted at the start of this post. Owen’s campaign might feel like received wisdom today, but at the time it went against the grain, and it would be many years and successive pieces of legislation (and here I am talking about the UK) before something close to Owen’s idea was realised in the forty hour working week.
Life in olden times
Officially, I am contracted to work forty hours a week split over five days, giving me part of Owen’s vision in an eight hour work day (and I am ignoring my infrequent on call shifts and unplanned overtime here as this just complicates matters).
In times BC (Before COVID), the entirety of my job was based in an office, clinic or hospital. I would drive to work before each shift (anything from 20 minutes to nearly two hours depending on where I was working at the time) and then back again at the end of the day. You may recall this strange concept known as commuting, something I certainly do not miss with home working.
If we take the most extreme example of nearly four hours of commuting in a day, this would see me needing to leave the house by around 7am to be at the office for nine, and arriving home around seven in the evening. While I may have been working for eight hours a day, with the commute either side it could be anything up to twelve hours I would be away from home.
At the end of the day, it would be rare for me to go to bed before 11pm. I might be spending time with family and friends, there could be something on TV I wanted to watch, or I might otherwise have been winding down after a busy day at work. To leave the house at 7am the next day, I needed to be up at 6am to give me chance to wash, dress and have breakfast. If I slept for seven hours it would be a good night, more often than not it would be closer to six. In times BC I might well have been working eight hours in a day, but I was certainly far from achieving the remainder of Owen’s goal for leisure and rest.
A new day, a new me
Slowly, it has dawned on me over the last couple of weeks I have managed to achieve Owen’s goal of an eight hour day as the COVID pandemic has progressed. Work has remained the same, 9am to 5pm (ignoring once more on calls), but as much of this is now from home, the commute has entirely disappeared.
Where before I needed to be up at six to be out the house by seven, now I can fall out of bed at eight, have a leisurely breakfast and shower and still be on time for work. Once the day is done, I can be making dinner as soon as the computer is off, or waking the dog, or indeed just relaxing in front of the TV. When it comes to sleep, as I am not needing to wake until eight, I can get away with bed at midnight and still feel refreshed.
Eight hours for work, eight hours for leisure (one in the morning and seven in the evening in case you were wondering), eight hours for rest. Inadvertently, I have personally achieved something first dreamt up by a Welsh philanthropic industrialist more than two hundred years ago. And on the face of it, my new Owensian schedule is doing me the world of good.
Take sleep as an example. It has been known for some time the idea of getting exactly eight hours sleep per night is not entirely true. Yes, for some people eight hours sleep might be the right amount, but typically most adults need between seven to nine hours per night, older people a little less, children and especially babies a lot more (so when your teenager tells you they need five more minutes to sleep, they are probably right…).
By chance I appear to fall almost slap bang in the middle of the range at eight hours. I set an alarm each morning, but will commonly wake before the alarm if I have had around eight hours sleep. And if I get close to the magic figure, I feel refreshed the next day. As I reflect back now on the last year and a half, even taking into account the terrible circumstances we have all found ourselves in, I have had some of the best sleep of my adult life!
My leisure time has equally benefitted, ironically even as we have been able to do less with our time as we are stuck at home for longer. Finishing work at five and not needing to sit in the car for hours sees me ready to walk the dog as I mentioned, or if the dog is with the in-laws, to spend time with the wife, read, get in the garden, or even attempt DIY (providing it will be quick). I have read more books in the last year than I did in the proceeding five, and I have begun to experience what I did as a child, the desire to be delving back into my current choice even when I have to do other things such as work or writing this post (I am sure it has taken me twice as long to write as I keep thinking about going back to my current read The Essex Serpent). Undoubtably, there will be a link between enjoying my leisure time and sleep as well. The better I sleep, the more I can enjoy my down time, while the more relaxed I am at the end of the day, the better I sleep.
As I mentioned early, work time has not changed significantly since the pandemic began. It is currently almost exclusively from home, and while video calling patients has its downsides, it does allow me to type notes while I talk, cutting down paperwork time after clinics to free me up for other things.
What is most interesting about work is the drive (amongst some forward thinking countries and companies) to go further than the eight hour day. I currently see my 8-8-8 day as good for my wellbeing, yet it is being increasingly recognised people may gain more from a six hour work day or four day work week (something deemed an overwhelming success when recently tried in Iceland). Presumably, given sleep needs are not going to increase, the additional time will be used instead for leisure.
(As a quick(ish) aside, while I am all in favour of shorter working hours and flexible working, I worry for some employers it will simply give them an excuse to find a way around currently hard won working time rights. We are told consistently younger people want flexible hours and work patterns, but it seems what is offered by some employers instead are unsociable hours or zero hours contracts which leave workers in potential financial peril. At the same time people are working increasing numbers of evenings and weekends. Having a day off in the week can be great, but having time off work such as the weekend when everyone close to you is off as well can be crucial for maintaining social contacts and wellbeing. Push for flexible working by all means, but we need to make sure it is to the benefit, and not the detriment, of workers as we do so.)
Robert Owen lived and worked at a time when life could be hell for workers. For many people around the world it remains truly awful, for some of us we are fortunate to benefit from the work and campaigning of people like Owen in the form of short(ish) working weeks and acceptable working conditions. As I have been able to create my own 8-8-8 day, I have seen benefits to my sleep and general wellbeing. For me at least, Owen was onto something.
Yet, as we have seen, the drive is for even shorter working times, and sleep is a little more complicated than many people believe. The principle of the 8-8-8 day is a good one, but maybe it is time to update Owen’s slogan for the modern age;
Six hours labour (for four days a week please), ten hours leisure, eight hours (+/- one hour)* rest
*other sleep schedules may apply, age dependant, if in doubt speak to your doctor…Jamie Richardson, circa 2021
I know, it’s not quite as catchy as Owen’s. Even so, just like Owen, I think it is something worth fighting for!
What do you think about a drive to shorter working days? What is your working week like now? Have you moved to more flexible working? If so has it improved your wellbeing and health? Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on the eight hour day and work life balance.