In his 1932 classic, In Praise of Idleness, philosopher Bertrand Russell foresaw a world in which technology would liberate human beings from working long hours. His contemporary, the economist, John Maynard Keynes, predicted a similar utopia in Economic Prospects For Our Grandchildren. “By 2030, the working week would be drastically cut, perhaps to even 15 hours, with people choosing to have far more leisure as their material needs would be satisfied,” he wrote. Technology governs the hours we clock at work today. But with e-mails going directly to phones and cloud-connected devices enabling anyone to access a file from anywhere, work hours have extended beyond office schedules. A realisation, however, is dawning in several parts of the world that working less need not be bad for people’s well-being. In moving a Private Member’s Bill to give employees the right to not respond to communication from employers outside of office hours, Nationalist Congress Party MP Supriya Sule seems to have drawn on such a thought.
Introducing the Bill in the Lok Sabha last month, Sule argued that “the urge to respond to calls and e-mails, constant checking of e-mails throughout the day, even on weekends and holidays, has destroyed work-life balance of employees.” Her bill asks the government to provide employees counselling, digital detox centres, and “similar resources to enable him to truly connect with the people around him”.
The NCP member’s bill, though limited to “digital distractions”, is bound to raise questions: Can India afford the luxury of compressed work schedules? France has a law similar to the one proposed by Sule. But what would it mean for a growing economy to give more switch-off time to its workers? To these questions, there is, of course, the instrumentalist answer provided by a growing number of studies that a less-stressed employee is a more productive one. But India shouldn’t be an outlier to conversations around productivity and work in several parts of the world. Most of them have striking similarities with Russell’s argument that “less frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia will make ordinary men and women more kindly and less inclined to view others with suspicion”.