Ill Communication

Originally published in Idler 66.

The occasional bout of illness can be a friend to the idle because it means we can stay in bed all day, responsibilities waived, surfing colourful cough-syrup dreams.

Fun though this can be, I’m forced to admit that there’s no substitute for good health. Not sort of health that comes from being a carb-dodging, 10k-running übermensch, I hasten to add, but at least the sort of healthfulness that means you can walk to the library without collapsing into a rubbery, wheezing heap. It’s also nice to go about your days without a Vicks Vapo-Stick hanging out of your nose. Besides, the proud idler needs no excuse to spend a day in bed. It is our god-given right and perhaps even a duty. I’m doing it right now, as it happens. And I’m wearing a fez.

It occurs to me that I haven’t been ill for ages, touch wood. The only explanation I can think of for this period of fine health is that I no longer go to work. Quit your job, fellow idlers, on health grounds. A job is like a gym class: a waste of effort, escaped with a note.

If the tyranny of what they call “practicality” means you’re unable to quit your job, perhaps you can still enjoy the health benefits enjoyed by quitters without actually requesting a P45. After all, you can benefit from the Mediterranean diet without moving to Florence. So let’s do it. Here’s my basic health programme for idlers, even those who have been cattle-prodded into work.

Take lunch. Taking an actual, proper lunch break affords you some privacy, a change of pace, a stretch, vital nutrition, and an hour away from the fluorescent lights, flickering screens and hot-desk bickering. Lunch is in decline, of course, today’s workers either too slavish or too frightened to take the full hour, even to leave the building and risk being late back to the desk. Idlers must reverse this trend. No more sad al desko sandwiches while gawping at social media (or, worse, continuing to work). Instead, go out for a stroll, eat good food, take the air, and reconnect with nature in small way by taking time to observe the antics of birds and ants. Short of feeding your head into a threshing machine, wilfully opting out of your enshrined-in-law daily lunch break is about the worst thing you can do for your health.

Walk to work. The sedentary nature of office work is perhaps the clearest way that it affects your health. Office managers are beginning to wake up to this and now offer “varidesks” (desks that can be adjusted to standing height) and “walking meetings” that serve to make everyone feel silly and unable to take notes. It’s too little too late and merely admits to the fact that office life is killing us. Workers need to seize opportunities to move, and a good way to do this is by walking to and from work. It’s a good way to escape the tedious Hell of a conventional commute (see this column in Idler 65) too. Walking to work can’t really count as flaneurism because the pre-planned destination deprives you of the dérive, but it’s the next best thing when you’re a time-starved drudge. It reconnects you with the streets and provides basic stretching of the leggies.

Say no to instant coffee. I’ve often felt that making coffee so readily available to a workforce resembles something from Aldous Huxley or a dystopian science fiction film. You can imagine a machine that vends little green hockey pucks of “phood,” which contain a productivity-enhancing drug and is welcomed by the workers as a cost-free perk despite it’s being an obvious measure to keep you down and toiling. Same thing, innit? There’s no way so much instant coffee can be good for you. Anything that purports to metamorphose into a consumable beverage from the state of industrial powder is almost certainly going to give you cancer. How can it not? It’s as far from nature as a CGI anvil.

Say no to office snacks. When I worked in an office, there were sugary snacks at every corner, which felt like compensation at the time but ultimately contributed to my depression and my pot belly. People would bring them in: souvenirs from Wage Slaves’ holidays, radially-sliced chocolate birthday cake, tubs of M&S rocky road, cookies and cupcakes from charitable bake sales. My theory is that workers bring snacks in such abundance as an inarticulate offer of friendship. Professionalism prevents you from saying “I love you,” which is also bad for your health.

Wear a micro-filter mask. When you pack a hundred white-collar workers, each from a different neighbourhood and each with their own families (who in turn work in other places or attend different schools), you’ve got yourself a mixing palette for GERMS. Some offices even add circular a air conditioning system to further guarantee that everyone breathes and re-breathes everyone else’s air. If you can’t work from home to escape such a plague pit, I suggest wearing a mask like a paranoid Howard Hughes type. Even if it doesn’t actually work as a pestilence barrier, it will serve as a visual protest to unhealthy office culture. It could be one of those dainty white surgical masks that Japanese tourists wear when visiting polluted Britain, or perhaps a full-head respirator thing like Darth Vader. Such a device would allow you to shut out some of the stressful office noise as well.

Oh, it’s hopeless isn’t it? Forget it. You can’t have good health if you work in an office. The anxiety, the sedentariness, the spine-contorting ergonomic swivel chairs, the viruses rattling through the ducts, the noise, the sugar, the screentime, the separation from anything that matters. It’s impossible. The open-plan office was clearly designed by an android ignorant of human biological needs, or else quite deliberately as a machine to wipe out a few of us. Just quit your job, I say! Idling is the only known cure.

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