The rest-less society: No time for relaxation

In his remarkable 1883 work The Right to be Lazy, French radical socialist Paul Lafargue made a telling observation:

“Cannot the labourers understand that by over-working themselves they exhaust their own strength and that of their progeny, that they are used up and long before their time come to be incapable of any work at all, that absorbed and brutalized by this single vice they are no longer men but pieces of men, that they kill within themselves all beautiful faculties, to leave nothing alive and flourishing except the furious madness for work.”

Certainly the drive to work longer hours has come to dominate American labor, as longer hours are the only way to to maintain life in a consumer culture.

From the Hamilton Project:


And there’s another question, posed by Harvard Business Review Senior Editor Sarah Green Carmichael in a 19 August 2015 essay:

Is overwork actually doing what we assume it does — resulting in more and better output? Are we actually getting more done?

There’s a large body of research that suggests that regardless of our reasons for working long hours, overwork does not help us. For starters, it doesn’t seem to result in more output. In a study of consultants by Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to. While managers did penalize employees who were transparent about working less, Reid was not able to find any evidence that those employees actually accomplished less, or any sign that the overworking employees accomplished more.

Considerable evidence shows that overwork is not just neutral — it hurts us and the companies we work for. Numerous studies by Marianna Virtanen of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and her colleagues (as well as other studies) have found that overwork and the resulting stress can lead to all sorts of health problems, including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease. Of course, those are bad on their own. But they’re also terrible for a company’s bottom line, showing up as absenteeism, turnover, and rising health insurance costs. Even the Scroogiest of employers, who cared nothing for his employees’ well-being, should find strong evidence here that there are real, balance-sheet costs incurred when employees log crazy hours.

If your job relies on interpersonal communication, making judgment calls, reading other people’s faces, or managing your own emotional reactions — pretty much all things that the modern office requires — I have more bad news. Researchers have found that overwork (and its accompanying stress and exhaustion) can make all of these things more difficult.

Today’s workers hunger for the right to be lazy

And now comes another study revealing the deep craving of the working class for more leisure, a validation of Lafargue’s central argument.

From the University of Durham:

Over two thirds (68 per cent) of the public would like more rest, according to the world’s largest ever survey on the topic.

The results of the survey, led by Durham University researchers, also revealed that nearly a third (32 per cent) of respondents said they need more rest than the average person, while 10 per cent think they need less.

Rest and well-being

More than 18,000 people from 134 different countries took part in the Rest Test, an online survey to investigate the public’s resting habits and their attitudes towards relaxation and busyness, and the results were unveiled during BBC Radio 4’s programme The Anatomy of Rest.

The survey found that those who felt they needed more rest scored lower in terms of well-being. Similarly, those who responded saying they think they get more rest than average or don’t feel in need of more rest, had well-being scores twice as high as those who wanted more rest. This suggests that the perception of rest matters, as well as the reality. 

Dr Felicity Callard, principal investigator on the project and social scientist in the Department of Geography,said: “The survey shows that people’s ability to take rest, and their levels of well-being, are related. We’re delighted that these findings combat a common, moralizing connection between rest and laziness.”

Five most restful activities

The survey asked people to choose the activities that they find the most restful. The results show that the top five most restful activities are those often done alone:

  • Reading (58 per cent)
  • Being in the natural environment (53.1 per cent)
  • Being on their own (52.1 per cent)
  • Listening to music (40.6 per cent)
  • Doing nothing in particular (40 per cent)

Dr Felicity Callard continued: “It’s intriguing that the top activities considered restful are frequently done on one’s own. Perhaps it’s not only the total hours resting or working that we need to consider, but the rhythms of our work, rest and time with and without others.”

Modern life

The results of the survey come at a time when the urge to be busy defines modern life and the topic of rest is at the forefront of many people’s minds. Rest can seem hard to find, whether in relation to an exhausted body, a racing mind or a hectic city. Rest is a much broader category than sleep, and has physical, mental and spiritual components. But much less is known about the potentially restorative benefits of rest – in part because it means different things to different people.

The survey asked respondents to state how many hours rest they had within the last 24 hours. The results showed that, on average, being younger and having a higher household income was associated with having fewer hours of rest. Those with caring responsibilities or in shift work which included nights also reported fewer hours of rest. The average time spent resting by UK respondents the previous day was 3 hours and 8 minutes.

Pressing issue

Claudia Hammond, presenter of Radio 4’s All in the Mind and associate director of Hubbub, said:

“We had no idea how many people would choose to complete the Rest Test. More than 18,000 gave up their precious sparetime to tell us what they thought about rest which shows us what a pressing issue it is. These results show just how crucial it is to our well-being to ensure people do have time to rest. We can begin to try to work out what the optimum amount of rest might be and how we should go about resting.”

The Rest Test has been designed by Hubbub, an international collective of social scientists, artists, humanities researchers, scientists, broadcasters, public engagement professionals and mental health experts, in residence at the Hub at Wellcome Collection in London, led by Durham University.

A full analysis of the data will be published in the next year. Hubbub hope the results will increase understanding of people’s perceptions of rest and the way these relate to an individual’s work or daily habits, as well as their experiences of health, illness, disability, satisfaction with life and the tendency to mind wander.

The results coincide with a new exhibition Rest & its discontents open at Mile End Art Pavilion from 30 September-30 October and a new Hubbub publication The Restless Compendium available free to download or to buy as a hard copy from at

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