The Price of our Political Work Culture

I read two interesting pieces today. The first was a study from the field of psychology, a discipline I have not given as much time to as would like. The other was an essay documenting the work culture of federal politicians.

A Scalable Goal-Setting Intervention Closes Both the Gender and Ethnic Minority Achievement Gap

This study documented an intervention intended to improve the academic performance of males and minority students. Those have poorer academic outcomes and higher dropout rates. Amazingly, this was achieved using a written online goal-setting programme. More equity between blocks, better marks, scalable, low cost and particularly effective with low performers. I was trained mostly in economics and public policy. As such I tend to think about problems a certain way. Thinking about societal problems from the perspective of individual mental health, or physical wellbeing is not my first instinct.

But it is good that I have the time to read widely, and explore new disciplines and ways of thinking. It’s not just good because it is a pleasant way to live. It’s good because, if I am to be of any use to my society, I need to be creative and used to exploring new ideas. New ideas often come from other disciplines. And it takes time to explore them, but every now and then you find a valuable new perspective to add to your cognitive toolkit. Gold.

Then I read this essay:

The Political Life is no Life at All

The essay spoke about long working hours, snap decision making and stress, a lot of stress. It’s nothing new really, I learned about this in my Masters. Public servants, and aspiring hopefuls, are trained to tailor their communications to this work culture. I had a lecturer once tell me to break down the information for a policy brief into two parts ‘the things the politicians absolutely must know, and the things they really really should know, then chuck out the second part.’

I was once assigned a reading on writing policy briefs that began like this:

“Imagine your minister getting on the red-eye flight from Perth. It leaves at 0.40am and arrives in, say, Melbourne five hours later. Think about this person and imagine their circumstances and condition. At this time of night, all ministers will have put in a 16-hour day. Most will be tired. Most will be stressed. Some will be poorly fed. A rare few will be watered too well. Once settled into the flight, some 36,000 feet in the air, some ministers order a red. Most then out of a sense of duty will open their briefcase and start to read a pile of briefs that had been screaming out for attention.”

I have also heard identical firsthand accounts from personal contacts who have a better vantage point than I do to judge political culture. Bad for your health, depressing, stressful and full of conflict. It sounded like the sort of environment that I had heard of before, in a podcast I heard. It introduced me to the term “scarcity mindset”. Essentially, people lacking friends, peace of mind, food or other human needs don’t think too well.


Good policymaking requires the time to reflect deeply, read widely, think creatively, ask open ended questions, and engage in dialogue with many different kinds of people and, well, our politicians are not in an environment to do that. It is not obvious that this is a problem unique to politics.

The labor market is changing. Those who work a 40 hour week are becoming less common. Replaced by some who work 50-60 hour weeks, and others who work 25-30. (From Andrew Leigh’s book, Disconnected)

A brief gander at depression and anxiety rates amongst lawyers suggests our politicians are not alone.

There is a name for this sort of situation. A situation where something is happening that hurts society, but it makes sense to contribute to it from the perspective of any one individual. It is called a “collective action problem”.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll read about how to deal with those.