Katrina Onstad is a writer whose first nonfiction book is called, The Weekend Effect: The Life-Changing Benefits of Taking Time Off and Challenging the Cult of Overwork.
I read The Weekend Effect this fall, and knew immediately I needed to have Katrina on the show to share her research with teachers. She has a fascinating insight into the history of the weekend and the 40-hour workweek, and explains how technology has in some ways sent us backward in workers’ rights.
We’ll also talk about practical steps you can take (and things you should avoid doing) if you want to make your weekends truly rejuvenating. Listen in.
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How people fought for the right to a weekend
ANGELA: So at the start of your book, you mention one of my favorite quotes from the Downton Abbey series, which is when the Dowager Countess says, “Week-end? What is a week-end?” And you make the case that really, just over a hundred years ago, weekends were not a thing in many Western cultures. There was a ruling class who led a life of leisure every day of the week, and then there was a working class who never had two days off in a row. So I’m wondering if you can tell us about the history of the weekend.
KATRINA: Yeah, I love that quote by the Dowager Countess and her shock of the concept of the people who work for her might get two full days off in a row. And really, that wasn’t that long ago. That’s just the beginning of the 20th century when she’s posing that question, which gives you a sense of how new this idea of a weekend really is.
But of course, the original scaffolding of the weekend is really ancient. The idea of taking time off in a workweek has its roots in religion. It’s something that exists in Judaism, Christianity, in a different form in Islam. Really, what the weekend is anchored in is the Sabbath, the sanctity of this Sabbath. This old edict from the Old Testament that God wants believers to take one day a week off of work, and to take that sacred time to congregate with one another, to pray, to reflect, to be reminded that there is a life outside of work, outside of the impulse to be productive. The Pharaoh was having the slaves move these bricks around endlessly and it was, God said no, they have to have some time off to come to me.
And of course, it was the original idea of Sunday, that we would not be working, we would not be engaged in consumption, or production, or materialism, but it would be a true break from that work-spend cycle. But this idea of the weekend, we don’t actually hear that until about 1870. That’s the first recorded use of the word weekend. It came out of England and actually arose through a combination of a century and a half of fighting from organized labor. Then there was this one group in London called the Metropolitan Early Closing Association, and they were a Christian organization of shopkeepers who were working 18-hour days during this time in the late 1800s, and they wanted to push back against those really long days.
But they also really wanted more attendance at church and they thought if they closed early on Saturday, then people would actually have time on Saturday to have a little more fun before they were in the church pews on Sunday. So it was a bit of a seat filler originally as the idea began. From that began this slow evolution into the two full days, which has become a norm really in most industrial societies, in some form, or at least an ideal that people strive for and people have fought for, for centuries.
It really didn’t occur to me until I was reading your book that people have actually given their lives for us to have the opportunity for better work-life balance, or to have this time off from work–that there were actually protests and demonstrations and all sorts of things for many years to prevent low-paid workers from being exploited. And I remember reading about the rallying cry in your book, which was “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, and 8 hours for what we will.” That was really eye-opening for me. I wonder if you can tell us about the struggle for workers’ rights.
Yeah, that phrase, that “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what you will,” that was a song, it was on many banners. You could see the imagery around that slogan for a better part of a hundred years actually.
So it’s really interesting, our relationship to time as workers was really different when we were primarily agrarian. It was the seasons and the sun that dictated the hours with which people worked. And that included breaks during the day when it was too hot, or the seasons would change how people work. But once industrialization really kicked in, there was this vast new workforce that was beholden to the clock, to manmade dictates of time, and people were indoors working in factories. Of course, this was an unregulated, unfettered brand new form of capitalism.
The first unions rose up out of these crazy 12, 14, 20 hour workdays that were literally killing people. The conditions were so unhealthy. In the 18th century, the first labor strikes were about shortening the workday to a fresh 10 hours a day, from a 14-hour day down to 10 hours.
And then gradually, this eight-hours-a-day plea that you are talking about, and the seminal moment of this long, century and a half long fight was probably May Day, May 1st, 1886 in Chicago, the Haymarket Affair, which is when thousands and thousands of people marched for this eight-hour workday. And of course, it ended in a terrible loss of life when a bomb exploded. We still don’t really know what happened. Anarchists were involved, police were killed, protesters were killed, there was a high profile trial in the wake of the Haymarket Affair and really, sacrifices were made for workers to regain or to gain control over some of their time.
And that eight-hour workday, of course, laid the foundation for just the thinking that people should actually have two full days, which gradually came in the mid to late 1800s.
So now we have this right to a weekend, this time of rest, which is protected by law, to some extent.
I think I would probably speak too much to a Canadian context on that because I’m not sure where things are standing in the United States right now with a 40-hour workweek. But generally, the 40-hour workweek is what workers are guaranteed by law. Of course, that has really changed hand in hand with the erosion of organized labor.
The unions are not as strong as they once were, and of course, protections for workers are not as strong as they once were and that means very basic rights, like overtime and weekends off. The other thing that’s happened during this shift in worker protections is the rise of technology.
And this is something that really hasn’t been acknowledged for the most part through legislation, which is that we kind of carry our offices in our pockets now.
We are accessible 24-7. I’m married to a teacher and I know that at night, his email is exploding with queries from his colleagues, parents, and students — there is no “off” button.
This is a common experience across workers’ lives today, and that work is largely uncompensated. It’s not redeemed through extra time, and it’s generally not redeemed through financial compensation.
Obviously, that feeds into burnout, exhaustion, and physical and mental health problems across the working world. So we’re kind of back almost to at the beginning of industrialization, where all bets were off and workers are just expected to be on call 24-7.
The other part of that which I think is interesting is that we have a relationship to work that’s quite different. It’s been described as a sort of form of Stockholm syndrome, where our identities are so tied to work that a lot of this 24-7 work ethos, we’ve really internalized that.
And there’s a lot of status associated with being busy. There’s been research done on what people regard as success. One of the things that people view as a badge of success is people being too busy, being exhausted, and having overfilled time.
This is something that’s actually kind of culturally revered — the optics of busy-ness. I live in a big busy city in Toronto, and when you say to somebody, “Hi, how are you?” … the first thing they’ll say is busy or tired and with a kind of oneupmanship, because if you’re busy it means you’re valuable, you’re wanted, and you’re productive.
It’s this bigger lens on who we are. Who we are as people is so related to who we are as workers. For some, that can be a great thing. We want to love our work, especially if you’re working in a field like education, and there’s such incredible self-value in it and you can feel like you’re actually making change — those are great things.
But on the other hand, it’s work. Work is work, and if we don’t protect ourselves from its infringement on every corner of our lives, we’re not going to be very good at it.
Right. So in ancient times, the need to have the Sabbath or this sacred time away from work may have been for different reasons–it may not be that you had this job you felt you identified with, where it was part of your core identity and part of your purpose. It may not have been that sort of motive, but this is something that humans have always sought after and needed throughout time, to realize that there has to be a separation at some point. You can’t just be working 24-7, there has to be this dedicated time set aside where you can focus on other things in your life.
The pressure to be working 24/7
I totally agree that in our society right now, we’re moving back away from that, particularly because of the technology, not just because of the technical work hours increasing, but just because we feel like we should be working all the time. We feel like it’s making us more productive, and therefore more valuable.
Yes, exactly. Although the great lie of this is that working more doesn’t actually make you more productive.
In fact, countries that have shorter work hour cultures have greater levels of productivity. The United States is not a particularly productive culture, but it is a really long hours culture, which is so telling.
And there comes a point, and research bears this out over and over, in a workweek where people are no longer doing their best work. That after around 40 hours–sometimes 50, if that’s occasional–whatever you’re making is going to start being error-filled. The quality of what you’re putting out there is going to weaken.
So it’s a bit of a lie, this idea that more work makes us better workers. It’s actually not true, and which is why I think we have to not only have institutional protections around a healthy work-life balance, and regular work hours, but also for ourselves.
We have to be really, really vigilant about protecting our own minds and bodies and relationships from the cult of overwork.
So let’s talk about both of those things–the systemic shifts that we can be part of, and then also some things that individual educators can do to protect their time and make sure they’re taking true breaks from work. I know that your book The Weekend Effect is not about schools in particular, but can you share some suggestions for how we can shift that “Do whatever it takes, work however many hours it takes” mentality that so many educators have in our schools?
Yes, it’s actually really a hard question, particularly for people in public service sector jobs like education. Because as you said, these are the purpose-driven jobs. And so your identity is doubly braided to the work, which is the wonderful thing about what teachers do and also I think the hardest thing about it.
So not only are teachers going to be caught up in society’s overall reverence for overwork, but the stakes are really high: If I don’t do this extra work, a child’s future is at stake. So there’s this amount of exhaustion and health risks.
I really think when I’m asked this question about what can we do, I feel like it’s a lot to place on the workers individually. Overwork is a public interest issue. The first thing I always think of is this push for institutional change and worker protections.
In France, they passed this really interesting legislation a couple of years ago called the “right to disconnect law” for certain segments of public sector workers or agencies over a certain number of people. So it’s not all across the board or anything, but basically it means that your boss can’t contact you after six o’clock at night.It actually takes that burden off of the worker to regulate overwork, and puts it on the institution, and normalizes healthy scheduling.
So there’s that — I think people who are paid better will work better. I think job sharing, creative management solutions, all of these things that are successful innovations from the private sector can work in the public sector.
But then the other question is what can you do on an individual level, particularly as a teacher? Take care of yourself — it’s imperative. Having leisure will make you a better teacher, and will make you a better person, a better human.
When we have that time off, I think one of the most important things we can do is interrogate what we’re going to do with that time. One of the things I look at in this book is these categories of active versus passive leisure. And we know that often, what people do when they finally do get that day off, if they’re lucky enough to get it, is they’re so tired that they kind of crash.
And the two things that people do the most with their leisure are chores and consumption, like shopping. So these are kind of quick things that we have to do. Of course, as people we have to get that stuff done, but a lot of that consumption is really passive, like sitting down and watching eight hours of Netflix, or just that really vegetative, “zombie-like” leisure time that we do, because we’re often so tired, doesn’t rejuvenate us. It won’t actually make you feel like you’ve had much of a break.
But research shows that active leisure, leisure that kind of pushes us in ways we might not feel like doing at all, to engage, to engage with our own minds, to pursue hobbies and actually the number one thing that increases people’s happiness, ergo their productivity is the connection to other people.
It’s such an isolating thing to be working all the time, even in a school, which I know schools are so busy, but then at night it’s the marking and the planning, and I think people end up feeling that they’re not in touch with people in their lives who aren’t part of their work lives.
So having those connections outside of work, reminding ourselves to nurture those relationships that will bring value, excitement, and creativity back into the classroom or into our workplace. I think that’s really important. So just making sure that leisure isn’t so much about checking out and distracting oneself as it is about enriching your mind, your body, your relationships.
I want to close out with a takeaway truth for something for teachers to remember in the week ahead. Is there something that you wish every teacher understood about The Weekend Effect?
I think it would be to really look at our weekends. Really step back and say, “Okay, are these the weekends I want?”
We all have so little free time, and I am always struggling to do this myself as a freelancer who lives this kind of borderless work-life existence, with work drifting into every corner.
How we live our weekends is how we live our lives. That would be my takeaway. And I think if we can bring some meaning and connection, revitalize ourselves in relation to our communities of people we love, and get engaged with activities that bring us joy, that we have some fun–0remember fun? Than we are planting a stake for ourselves and declaring that our time and our lives are about more than work.
And I think that will make everybody who walks into the classroom on Monday a better teacher. But my concern is also you’ll be a better person, you’ll feel better, you’ll be a better human being. And I think that’s what we all should be striving for. It’s what our students should be seeing too, and the people who love us.
That’s right. It makes you not just a better teacher, but a better person. What you do on your weekends and in your free time impacts how you show up in the classroom on Monday morning.
Absolutely, yes! There’s no line, especially in teaching. You’re really bringing yourself in there. So, how is that self doing? Have you been tending the self, are you giving everything over? Are you drained? Is it work, work, work? So just a reminder that you matter, as well.
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