‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ How Do We Put an End to Work Marathons?

Still from from the film: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Still from from the film: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

‘Yowza! Yowza! Yowza! Welcome to the dance of destiny, ladies and gentlemen. Around and around and around we go, and we’re only beginning, folks, only beginning! On and on and on, and when will it stop? When will it end? When? Only when the last two of these wonderful, starry-eyed kids are left. Only when the last two dancers stagger and sway, stumble and swoon, across the sea of defeat and despair to victory.’

Rocky the MC, in the opening sequence of ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’

I recently attended an excellent exhibition of American paintings from the 1930s. (America After the Fall, Royal Academy, London, until 4 June.) With work by the likes of Edward Hopper, Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton, we see the bold geometric shapes of America’s industrial landscape alongside the sweeping curves of its endless open spaces. We see cities teeming with life, bursting with entrepreneurial energy, stumbling from the body blow of the Wall Street Crash. We see austere rural communities staring the Great Depression in the face.  

I was particularly struck by a 1934 image by Philip Evergood depicting one of the Dance Marathons that were popular across America during the Depression. In these grim endurance contests, which foreshadowed the reality TV shows of today, spectators paid to watch couples dance continuously for weeks on end. In Evergood’s painting the competitors cling to their partners, seemingly dead on their feet, as they enter the forty-ninth day of a tournament to win $1000. At the fringes bored spectators look on.

Rocky: ‘It isn't a contest. It's a show.’

Philip Evergood 'The Dance Marathon'

Philip Evergood 'The Dance Marathon'

A Dance Marathon on Santa Monica Pier is the setting for the 1969 movie ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ starring Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin. It’s a dark, sad story which clearly suggests the gruelling contest is a metaphor for a society gone wrong: the dispossessed and down-at-heal subscribe to an exhausting, degrading show where there are only two winners - and even their victory will ultimately be hollow. The tragedy is that none of the contestants can see an alternative. Desperate for the prize money, they sign up and struggle on of their own accord.

Rocky: ‘I may not know a winner when I see one, but I sure as hell can spot a loser.’

Reflecting on Dance Marathons, I found myself thinking of the modern world of work. We all continue to dance, as our working hours steadily increase; as our lunch hours are squeezed and our holidays deferred; as our ‘week-end’ transforms into our ‘week-beginning;' as the boundaries between home and work collapse; as tech enables us to be ‘always on,’ and consequently our work is ‘never off.' We’re putting our bodies and brains under ever increasing pressure. In a sense we’re all voluntarily engaged in our own Work Marathons.

Work Marathons not only deprive individuals of engaged and happy family lives; they also deprive businesses of engaged and happy employees. This is particularly true for creative businesses where the richness of colleagues’ hinterlands relates directly to the richness of their conceptual contributions.

How can you have a hinterland if you’re hardly ever home? How can you have a transformative idea if you have no transformative experiences? How can you demonstrate empathy with consumers when you have no time to meet any?

One curiosity of today’s overwork culture is that it afflicts seniors as much as juniors. I was particularly depressed to read recently that many American CEOs take pride in working over 100 hours per week, and that Apple’s Tim Cook starts work at 3-45AM. (The New Status Symbol, The Guardian, 24 April 2017). Everyone talks about agile working, but 100-hour weeks don’t sound very agile to me. Surely top CEOs don’t need to do this. Perhaps they enjoy it. (The Guardian journalist, Ben Tarnoff, suggests that the elite's conspicuous consumption is being supplemented by ‘conspicuous production.’) Whatever their motivation, they are setting a standard by which their employees will inevitably be measured.

Of course, the necessary recalibration of work-life balance should start with our leaders. They need to set an example. But what about the rest of us? Do we just keep on dancing ‘til the rhythm changes?

It has been pointed out that we should never complain about a traffic jam because by being in it we’re contributing to the problem: ‘You aren’t stuck in traffic. You are traffic.’ In the same way perhaps, we all consider ourselves victims of overwork culture, when in truth we’re probably partially responsible for it. We all fix that meeting, set that deadline, send that email, demand that attendance, revise that brief.

Male Dancer: ‘Anyone ever told you…?
Gloria: ‘Yeah, they told me.’

I suspect we know the answers already. We just need to apply them. We should set aside presenteeism, micromanagement and over-engineered solutions. We should properly embrace empowerment, expertise, velocity, agility. In short:

Don’t control the process; trust the team.
Don’t double up on tasks in the name of representation; respect roles and responsibilities.
Don’t celebrate longevity; reward intensity.
Don’t obsess about inputs; concentrate on outputs.
Don’t deal with it after the meeting; solve it in the room.
And don’t send it at the weekend; save it ‘til Monday morning.

I also read recently that the inventor, designer and manufacturer James Dyson only receives six work emails a day (Vacuum Your Emails, Sunday Times, 7 May 2017). It’s true that sometimes email management creates merely the illusion of work – email is often an anodyne, short-term distraction from building real relationships and finding long-term solutions. Of course, Dyson has the advantage of being in charge and having a secret email account. But maybe he’s onto something.


This piece was written to mark Mental Health Awareness Week

No. 130