November 10, 2020

I crossed the threshold of Downing Street for the first time about eight minutes before Nick Clegg. We wanted to make sure there were some friendly faces to greet him on the inside of that famous door. I’d been working 18 to 20 hours a day since the election, five days earlier, helping to negotiate and write the coalition agreement. We were all running on fumes: a heady combination of adrenalin, caffeine and novelty that kept us upright but did little to prevent unforced errors of judgement.

Later today, I’ll give evidence to Parliament’s Public Administration Committee on the operations of Number 10. It will focus on the usual controversies and challenges faced in that poky building. But as I reflect on my five years there I can’t help but conclude that the worst thing about Downing Street is its addictive power.

Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email

Already registered? Sign in

Politics and elections are bad enough: I was once told by a campaign organiser that blisters on my feet weren’t a reason to sit down. I should only stop delivering leaflets if they started to bleed, and only then in order to apply plasters. But once you’re working for the Prime Minister, fatigue becomes a badge of honour.

You don’t need to look far to see leaders boasting about their inhuman resilience. Margaret Thatcher claimed to only need four hours sleep. Donald Trump has done the same. When Dominic Cummings advertised for new special advisers, he made clear they’d not see their friends or daylight if they took the job. Boris Johnson claimed for two weeks he was working through his Covid symptoms, because sickness — like sleep — is for wimps. It was only once he was admitted to intensive care that they admitted someone else might need to take the tiller of government for a couple of days.

Did they learn from that? Of course not. A couple of weeks ago,  minister Nadhim Zahawi was challenged on Sky News about the performance of Dido Harding, the beleaguered boss of the beleaguered test and trace system. He leapt to her defence and claimed she is working 19 hours a day, seven days a week. We can only hope he’s mistaken, because if this is true she might as well be running the place drunk.

The impact of chronic sleep deprivation on cognitive performance is profound. The scientific literature shows people think slower, and — if pressed for time — make more mistakes. Their memory gets foggier. They learn less easily. And they have “difficulty determining the scope of a problem due to changing or distracting information”, a phrase which sounds like it came from a public inquiry report into the Test and Trace shambles.

The AA estimates that up to 25% of fatal accidents are caused by motorists falling asleep at the wheel. If you’re driving an organisation, rather than a car, you’re running the same risk. “Working 19 hours a day” is a sure fire way to make yourself worse at your job. But what’s madder: doing it, or seeing someone else do it and being impressed? Zahawi clearly thought he was complimenting his fellow minister for her dedication and self-discipline. He — and most of the nation, it seems — has fallen prey to a collective delusion that working yourself to exhaustion is the way to look tough. It’s a rotten mix of machismo and masochism.

It’s not just politics. Step into the swamp of LinkedIn and you’ll find endless “hack your body” mentors instructing you to get up at 4am. This is wakefulness inflation: 20 years ago Robin Sharma created the “5am club”, advocating people get up at this ungodly hour for 20 minutes learning, 20 minutes planning, and 20 minutes exercise before anyone else woke up. But once 5am was popular, you had to be in the 4.30am club to be special. And then 4am. Soon you’ll have to get up before you go to bed in order to keep up with the business influencers.

The absurdity of this is that it’s not about what you’re achieving. It’s about showing that you’re working more than other people. You want to be the first in the office and the last to leave because it looks good. The most depressing part is that it often works to help individuals get ahead. So many bosses are rubbish at measuring performance, so they measure who’s there instead. Men end up working more hours than women, because they’re less likely to have caring responsibilities. They’re more likely to be able to put their hands up for the overtime. And that drives the gender pay gap even wider.

But if our work addiction is toxic when it comes to overtime, it’s even worse when it comes to sick leave. If you want proof of our cultish delusion, spend half an hour watching adverts for cold and flu remedies on YouTube.

You know the routine. Person feels ill. Person drinks medicine. Person gives a brilliant presentation / performs brilliantly on stage / plays enthusiastically with their children at a crowded activity centre. The message is obvious: take our pills and you can carry on with your life, regardless of how far you spread your disease by doing so. There was even a postie coughing all over the letters and parcels before he delivered them. After all, nothing says hard work like pushing disease vectors through people’s front doors.

In fact, a decade ago when Benylin launched an advert encouraging people to stay at home when sick the Federation of Small Businesses reacted with horror and disgust. “These terms make a mockery of how serious it is not to turn up to work,” said the boss of the FSB. “If people have real flu then of course they should take the day off, but if it is just a cold then they should not.”

Are they stupid? It’s completely counterproductive to tell people to come to work while infectious, even with a cold: you’ll just end up with the whole team falling ill. And yet the official representative body of small business says that’s precisely what we should do.

The work-til-you-drop culture is reflected in our ludicrous sick pay system, which only requires your employer to pay you if you’ve been off for more than three days. Even then, it’s less than £100 a week. So — unless your employer is more generous — you basically have to show up for work unless you physically can’t. Which means people trek their viruses and bacteria to work and we end up losing more — instead of fewer — days to ill health. And that’s before you even count the productivity loss of wooly-headed snifflers trying and failing to do their jobs when they should be at home with Netflix and a duvet.

If Covid-19 has taught us anything, surely it has taught us to change these rules? And change the culture that underpins them. When you’re sick, you should stay at home. When you’re tired, you should sleep. Sick people and exhausted people are bad managers, they’re bad leaders, and they’re bad colleagues.

In the early days of the pandemic, the money guru Martin Lewis was presenting a live TV show about how to manage your finances during the crisis. At one point, he had to cough. He shocked his audience by observing that it was suddenly less socially acceptable to cough on live TV public than to fart. But I’ve realised this is a social stigma we should stick with. I’m no particular fan of flatulence, but what harm does it do? It’s coughs that spread disease. We shouldn’t be shaming people for staying in bed to cough and sneeze. We should be shaming them for taking their coughs and sneezes out with them to the office, the shop, the factory, and the bus. Freedom for farts. Stigma for sneezes. It’s the way forward.

It’s been more than 200 years since Welsh mill owner and labour rights activist Robert Owen argued that what we need each day is simple: eight hours labour, eight hours recreation and eight hours rest. Those 200 years haven’t changed human nature. If you’re working more than Owen prescribed, chances are you’re not being a strong and powerful leader. You’re taking work away from others who need it and undermining your own performance.

Being at work is not a virtue in and of itself. Being productive is what matters. When we see a crisis of bad management like Test, Trace and Isolate, we shouldn’t ask why the team aren’t working harder. We should ask why they are working so much. You cannot run a marathon at a sprinter’s pace. Whether it’s senior management or a junior worker, in public services or private enterprise, we will get more from our people if we ask them for a little less.