Can Rest Be Complementary to Work?

Modernity regards work and rest as opposites. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang suggests they are otherwise 

Published 7 years ago on May 20, 2017 3 minutes Read

The idea of work and rest as opposites and competitors now seems perfectly logical, but it’s one of those logical ideas that’s actually a historical artefact. Before the eighteenth century, the boundaries between work and rest were not so clear-cut. Workplaces and domestic space were often intertwined: in the prenductrial era, skilled workers had shops in hteir homes, small farmers brought livestock into the house during winter months, scholars and teachers gave lessons out of their homes, and apprentices lived with their masters. Working time was more flexible and “task-oriented,” as labour historian E. P. Thompson put it, and many workers sought to work only long enough to provide for their basic needs. This order was upended by the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The factory and office came to be seen as the places where “real” work happened. The home, in contrast, evolved into the domestic sphere, the place where a man could relax and recover from work. (Of course, men could believe that the home was a retreat from work so long as they did no work there; for women it was a different story.) The labour movement’s advocacy of shorter hours, paid vacation days, and holidays further (though unintentionally) contributed to a sense that work and leisure were opposites and could be haggled over and won and lost.

The template of industrial labor, including its underlying assumptions about work and rest, was copied by service industries, professions, and bureaucracies in the mid-nineteenth century. The modern office was conceptualised as a machine for rationalising and organising intellectual labour, and it copied the working hours of factories. But the model has been an imperfect fit in creative industries, as it’s extremely hard to measure productivity and quality in creative and knowledge work. In factories and fields, you can point to tangible products at the end of the day; in industries where the “product” is intangible and projects may take years to complete, it’s harder to assess from day to day how you or your subordinates are performing.

But it’s possible, especially in today’s open office, to see who looks busy, who looks engaged, and who seems passionate about their work. As a result, service workers and professionals are rewarded not just for performing work but also for “performing” busyness at work. This has been true, but with the growth of global twenty-four/seven enterprises and the proliferation of mobile and digital tools that let you work anywhere and anytime, let work follow you everywhere, and let employers track your activities in and out of the workplace, the opportunities for performing busyness expand. These tools give us the capacity to measure everything – except when to stop work, when to turn off our device, and when to disconnect. Flexible hours often collapse into work hovering over all our hours, transforming work from something you break into smaller blocks and spread across the day into a flood that soaks your whole life. In the modern office, all the world’s a stage, nowhere is off-camera, and the performance never stops.