Reclaiming Rest: Are You a Victim of the Industrial Revolution?

In 1910, President William Howard Taft proposed that every American worker should receive two to three months of vacation time each year  “in order to continue [their] work next year with the energy and effectiveness that it ought to have.” Sounds wonderful, right? Of course, captains of industry – and U.S. legislators – disagreed, and to this day, the U.S. is one of only a handful of countries that does not offer federally mandated paid time off. Across the Atlantic, both Sweden and Germany instituted their own laws, followed by many other European countries in the following decades, and workers there now receive an average of seven weeks paid vacation, and a very different – arguably much more healthy – work ethic. While the history of the sabbath and days of rest is as old as history, the modern “weekend” dates back to the industrial revolution. Agreements were made between factory owners and workers in Northern England to allow staff time off from 2pm on Saturdays “on the basis that staff would be available for work sober and refreshed on Monday morning.”

Notice the theme in the quotes? Time off – whether weekends or vacation – is treated as something that is given to the worker, with provisos attached that benefit the workplace. Even the phrase “time off” presupposes that work is the norm, and leisure is the deviation from it. In his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman makes the case that before the industrial revolution – and especially before assigned ‘vacation times’ – we looked at life the other way around. He highlights that the Latin word for business, negotium, literally translates as ‘not-leisure’ – leisure being the highest human calling here, and work being the necessary deviation from it.

Could we spend our whole life in leisure activities? No. That’s neither feasible nor desirable, and for a huge swath of people even the discussion of the idea carries with it a sickening amount of privilege. But – to go back to the quotes – the idea that our time away from work should primarily serve to benefit our work and our workplaces… that is both a) unhealthy and b) so deeply engrained in our society that you might feel uncomfortable or guilty when you spend a day doing nothing. Burkeman makes a pitch for hobbies – the kinds of activities you enjoy that won’t make you better at your job (or if they do, that is entirely unintentional), and that you won’t necessarily ever become particularly good at, or ever complete. Hiking, for example, or playing around on a musical instrument without purpose. Or, as rock star Rod Stewart has been doing for decades, building model railways. The problem these days is that there’s a push to ‘promote’ hobbies to become paid jobs. If you are someone who enjoys knitting, woodworking, or painting, you’ve likely heard the familiar refrain of “you could sell these on Etsy!” There’s a strong pull to monetize your interests, which can be both enjoyable and life-sucking. Burkeman would argue that even if your work is a personal passion, there’s important value in engaging in hobbies that are simply hobbies – something you enjoy but that will ultimately lead nowhere. In the words of the title character to 2018’s Christopher Robin, when presenting the idea of paid time off to his managers in post World War II London, “doing nothing leads to the very best something.

How can you reclaim rest this week?

This Week’s Tips:

Engage in – and support – hobbies that encourage true rest, with no ulterior motive to support your work.

  1. Practice healthy boundaries away from work. If this is a challenge, ask for support from family, friends, and even colleagues.
  2. Don’t be productive! By all means be creative, energetic, and playful, but push against the compulsion to do something productive. If you have a hobby you haven’t engaged with for a while, do that – without any end result or goal in mind. As Burkeman suggests, this may be make you very uncomfortable; be willing to wrestle with that discomfort, and later reflect on how that time felt for you in retrospect.
  3. Support and encourage others to reclaim their rest. Talk about how you’re reclaiming rest with others, and support them in doing the same, even if the form it takes for them is completely different. If you manage others, respect their boundaries away from work – use scheduling tools to avoid sending them emails while they’re not working.

Try this out this week, and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group! We’d love to hear from you. As always, you can subscribe to our feed here, or sign up for our weekly newsletter to get these articles directly in your inbox.

Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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