SLEEP AND STRUCTURE
Back when the majority of jobs were in manufacturing, workers needed to stay on shift for a set amount of hours so that the factory managers could calculate time-based output. This could be the number of cars assembled, gallons of oil drilled, tonnes of ore mined, or progress against projects. Office work operates on a very different logic, wherein output is measured in terms of discrete projects and KPIs. Roles are fluid and the actual work more creative, despite the actual designation of the time between 9am and 5pm as work hours being a result of the US government implementing a 40-hour-work-week for its employees back in 1946, as a consequence of labour organisations having agitated for an 8-hour day since 1886. Standardised work times have taken different forms throughout history, such as the 8-8-8 day arrangement won by Melbourne stonemasons in 1856, in which stoneworkers managed to reduce a 10-hour work day to an 8-hour one, with no pay losses incurred. Similar arrangements had been arrived upon in New Zealand in 1840, in Europe throughout the late 19th Century, and in Russia in 1917. 8 hours of work, 8 hours of play, 8 hours of sleep, 5 days a week.
Could you imagine a negotiation in which you end up working 25% less, with no pay cut?
Suffice it to say that a lot has changed technologically, economically, socially, and professionally in the intervening 74 years. However, labour output is founded on the basic formulation of what constitutes full-time work: 9-to-5, five days a week, until you either die or retire. This rigid structure is a scaffold around which a day can be scheduled. People time their morning start so that they can prepare themselves for work. They time their personal errands at the end of the day once they've returned home and can devote time to their own personal care. Sleep comes when it can, but it's often fit in when people have done their to-do's and is all too little when you can get it.
However, this has changed as a consequence of the Coronavirus Pandemic.
Australia's white-collar jobs, while already existing within a somewhat fluid arrangement of starting and finishing times, have become even more poorly defined. Without the necessity of allocating time to travel to and from a location-based office or studio, the fundamental scaffold offered by a 9-5 working arrangement has been lost. Why get up at a certain time when you can just log into your laptop and work as effectively from home as you would if you'd spent a half-hour commuting into work? Why delineate between personal and professional time when work is in your home, your boss just a phonecall away, your projects accessible in your pyjamas and your contracts manageable over a pot of coffee, fresh from your countertop? One unintended consequence of working from home is that the home as a place of rest has been turned into another arena in which work is conducted. You can't escape your laptop, your outlook, your calendars and your webmail alerts. And try as they might, people haven't been able to proactively draw lines between paid time and personal time.
An ABC report published on the 18th of May revealed that working from home had resulted in an "epidemic" of overtime. While this may be excusable from a business perspective; companies needing to put in more hours across the board to respond with agility to changing economic and social situations, this is also a result of the fundamental power imbalance between people and their professions. With accessible technology, work follows people around; your boss can now send you a quick email two hours after your work day has been completed giving you a task - your laptop's right there, why wouldn't you just get it done? And who are you to refuse? Unemployment is forecast to crack through the double digits, people are being laid-off, paid-off, cut-down and cut-out across every single sector of the economy. Branches that don't bear fruit get pruned. Work, and the employer-employee, supervisor-supervised dynamics that come with work, have invaded our homes and our sanctuaries. We are now overwhelmed in work, spatially, temporally, and psychologically. On average, people are clocking in four or five hours of unpaid overtime on a weekly basis - those gains from organisation, hard-won back in the nineteenth century, have finally been disrupted against the favour of the worker. When you're drowning in work, how can you draw a line between your own time and your paid time?
So what suffers most? What can the worker most easily cut back on so that they can meet the new demands of a pervasive professional obligation that follows them home, to the toilet, to the bed, the bath and beyond?
Humans spend around a third of our lives asleep – it's one of the most important elements of an overall healthy lifestyle. Having a regular sleep cycle is key to performing at or above par during working hours. Sleep is an active physiological process which allows your body to carry out vital activities – it is vital for muscle and tissue recovery, muscle growth, cell restoration, as well as hormonal balance. This is especially important if you are constantly feeling sore, or suffering from injuries or strains. Sleep rehabilitation is such a problem that billion-dollar industries have sprung up to address sleep disturbances and teach good "sleep hygiene." Sleep deprivation is a reliable form of torture to break the will of the enemies of the state. Sleep is so essential to our function as an organism that losing even a few hours during the week can affect high-level reason and verbal communication, as well as have detrimental impacts on our ability to problem solve.
Without sleep, we cannot function. But without structure, we cannot sleep. Where previously we had a dependable timetable: work from 9-5, travel to and from, sleep however many hours, squeeze in some exercise, some intimacy, maybe a good glass of wine, now we have lost our structure. The 8-8-8 delineation has turned into 24 hours of hot trash that doesn't help anyone. Time-hygiene is poor among people who have previously been following a routine of attendance at location-based workplaces. This is in addition to the stress imposed on everyone: employed or otherwise, the Coronavirus Pandemic represents the single most economically, socially, and societally disruptive event since the Second World War. There is nobody who is alive today who is not experiencing some measure of fear, indecision, or instability, and there is nowhere to retreat from the existential threat of the world.
So what to do?
The solution is simple. 8 hours of sleep, every day. If it has to be scheduled, then schedule it. It's never been more important than now to create order in chaos, and to make sure that you as an individual are doing what you need to to exist in the world as it is. Sleep is the only time we really have to ourselves - the time when we're not accountable to others, to our environment, or even to the needs of our bodies. Sleep takes up one third of a human life: three and one-third years of sleep for every ten years of living. It may come and go in a flash, or it may be tumultuous, but to spare time for sleep is essential. We as a society are undergoing fundamental changes in the manner in which we interact with our occupations, our environment, and each other. When we lose the structure imposed upon our day by necessary economic activity, the least we can do is to structure our day based on our necessary physiological activity. To survive is human, and we all need to survive this.