In 2013, a Japanese news reporter named Miwa Sado died suddenly, soon after covering two consecutive elections. An investigation by government officials classified the tragedy as a case of karoshi, or death by overwork. Sado had clocked a hundred and fifty-nine hours of official overtime in the preceding month. When her body was found, she was still clutching her mobile phone. As the anthropologist James Suzman elaborates in his recent book, “Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time,” the story of Sado and the phenomenon of karoshi spotlight the dangers of a post-industrial economy in which both the work available and our ambitions have become effectively infinite. “Ever since some of our ancestors substituted their bows and digging sticks for plows and hoes, death by overwork has been a thing,” Suzman writes. But, as he elaborates, “what drove the likes of Miwa Sado to lose or take their lives was not the risk of hardship or poverty but their own ambitions refracted through the expectations of their employers.”

Mercifully, these extreme examples of overwork remain relatively rare. In 2013, Sado was one of only a hundred and thirty-three deaths in Japan officially attributed to karoshi. Even a single such case, of course, is too many, but, among the class of workers who have some autonomy over their workload, few seem to allow it to spiral completely out of control. Unfortunately, a leisurely approach to work seems just as scarce. A few years ago, a former editor of mine sent me a book manuscript that he thought I might enjoy, written by a corporate Web designer turned self-employed consultant named Paul Jarvis. The book was titled “Company of One: Why Staying Small Is the Next Big Thing for Business,” and Jarvis argued that, instead of trying to grow your business to produce more revenue, you should purposefully keep it small in order to reduce stress and increase leisure time. This idea presented such a striking countercultural contrast to the hustle-and-grow books that dominated the business-advice genre that I read it eagerly and offered a blurb for the book jacket.

Unlike Sado and Jarvis, most workers who are fortunate enough to exert some control over their efforts—such as knowledge workers and small-business entrepreneurs—tend to avoid working way too much, but also tend to avoid working a reasonable amount. They instead exist in a liminal zone: a place where they toil, say, for the sake of fixing a specific number, twenty percent more than they really have time for. This extra twenty percent provides just enough overload to generate persistent stress—there’s always something that’s late, always a message that can’t wait until the next morning, always a nagging sense of irresponsibility during any moment of downtime. Yet the work remains below a level of unsustainable pain that would force a change.

I’ve been thinking about this extra twenty percent as part of my broader effort to understand the renegotiation with work that’s underway as we tumble toward post-pandemic normalcy. The ubiquity of overwork is a serious obstacle for many of the ideas about how we might reshape our professional lives in the months ahead. When we face more work than we can easily handle, the frictions of remote work intensify, increasing the chances that we’ll eventually just give up and return to the office full time. Similarly, adopting newly popular schemes such as a four-day workweek won’t provide the intended flexibility and mental relief when we pack in too many tasks for whatever number of hours we commit to cover. If we want our workplaces to become more productive and more humane, we’ll have to figure out how to circumvent the extra twenty percent that we pile on ourselves.

Many of the recent takes on this overload problem adopt a classical Marxian conflict-theory perspective: if you’re working too much, it’s because the capitalists are exploiting your labor—either directly, through unreasonable demands, or indirectly, by propping up a culture that valorizes industriousness. Conflict theory identifies “revolution from below” as the solution to these degradations: beat back haranguing bosses through unionization and labor legislation; destabilize their coercive culture through art and polemic. These dynamics are certainly relevant to many parts of our economic activity (consider, for example, the ongoing fight to unionize Amazon warehouse workers), but, when it comes to semi-autonomous knowledge workers and entrepreneurs, the issue becomes murkier. Many of these overworked individuals don’t have a manager directly measuring their output and pressuring them to do more—and, far from embracing a culture that valorizes busyness, these workers tend to think of their freneticism as a weight that they desperately wish to shed; indeed, they are often frustrated by their inability to do so. Losing the comforting clarity of conflict theory is a problem: If we can’t point to bad actors causing our misery, where do we aim our urgent conviction to do something about it?

We might make more progress on understanding chronic busyness by turning to a satirical essay published in The Economist in 1955 by a British naval historian with the almost comically patrician name of Cyril Northcote Parkinson. This essay, which has become an underground classic among those who study work and productivity, is titled “Parkinson’s Law,” and it opens with a famous pronouncement: “It is a commonplace observation that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Parkinson supports this claim by discussing the growth of British Admiralty between 1914 and 1928. During this postwar period, the number of capital ships and the sailors who manned them significantly decreased. What caught Parkinson’s attention was how, during this same period, the naval administrative bureaucracy significantly increased. Parkinson argues that this administrative apparatus, in the absence of strict directives about what work it should accomplish, became an independent, self-regulating system that began to grow for the sake of growing, unrelated to the actual organizational demands it served.

To emphasize his point about rampant bureaucratic growth, Parkinson provides a series of equations, of the type an ecologist might use to model the replication of a bacteria colony. The mathematical details of Parkinson’s Law are not important, as his precision was meant to be satirical. But embedded in this satire is an important truth: work systems, if left sufficiently autonomous, can evolve in ways independent of any rational plan. Once we accept this idea, our busyness problem becomes easier to grasp. The defining property of our contemporary professional settings, where everyone is working twenty per cent too much, is the autonomy given to individuals to decide what work to take on and what work to defer or decline.

If you’re a professor, or a mid-level executive, or a freelance consultant, you don’t have a supervisor handing you a detailed work order for the day. Instead, you’re likely bombarded with requests and questions and opportunities and invites that you try your best to triage. How do you decide when to say no? In the modern office context, stress has become a default heuristic. If you turn down a Zoom-meeting invitation, there’s a social-capital cost, as you’re causing some mild harm to a colleague and potentially signaling yourself to be unco√∂perative or a loafer. But, if you feel sufficiently stressed about your workload, this cost might become acceptable: you feel confident that you are “busy,” and this provides psychological cover to skip the Zoom. The problem with the stress heuristic is that it doesn’t start reducing your workload until you already have too much to do. Like Parkinson’s naval bureaucracy, which expanded at a regular rate regardless of the size of the Navy, this stress-based self-regulation scheme ensures that you remain moderately overloaded regardless of how much work is actually pressing.

The Parkinson-inspired explanation for overwork suggests an obvious general remedy: reduce the degree to which workloads are purely self-regulated. In an article for the MIT Sloan Management Review, from 2018, titled “Breaking Logjams in Knowledge Work,” the business scholars Sheila Dodge, Don Kieffer, and Nelson P. Repenning argue that office work should follow the lead of advanced industrial manufacturing and move the assignment of tasks from a push to a pull model. Most knowledge-work settings deploy a push paradigm: when you need something done, you push it onto someone else to accomplish—with an e-mail, or a request made during a meeting. As the authors note, this leaves overloaded individuals to make complicated prioritization decisions on their own, which in turn breeds disorganization. “When knowledge work processes are managed via push,” they write, “it’s difficult to track tasks in the process because so many of them reside in individual email inboxes, project files, and to-do lists.”

The alternative, they argue, is a pull approach. All of the tasks that may once have been scattered across dozens of individual inboxes and to-do lists are now stored in a commonplace, such as a team task board, where the status and priority of each item can be made clear to all. When an individual finishes one of a set number of works in progress, they can turn to this board and pull in a new task to take its place. You fix the workload to a reasonable level and then try to get the most important things done within this limit. A pull-based workflow is perhaps more a thought experiment than a silver bullet; although it can work beautifully in some professional contexts, it might prove to be a terrible fit in others. The larger idea is that there are alternatives to the total autonomy that defines so much knowledge work at the moment, and these are alternatives that we should be exploring.

Our tendency to work twenty percent too much is neither arbitrary nor sinister: it’s a side effect of the haphazard nature in which we allow our efforts to unfold. By thinking more intentionally about how work is identified, how it is prioritized, and how it is ultimately assigned, we can avoid some of the traps set by pure self-regulation. The pandemic has created a disruptive moment in which it’s possible to imagine work culture actually changing. But, as evidenced by the persistence of overload—and the ability, more generally, of undirected work systems to evolve in unexpected ways—we can’t redirect the future of work until we can control it in the present.

Like most people in the developed world, Kirsten Gjesdal had long taken for granted her ability to order whatever she needed and then watch the goods arrive, without any thought about the factories, container ships, and trucks involved in the delivery.

Not anymore.

At her kitchen supply store in Brookings, S.D., Ms. Gjesdal has given up stocking placemats, having wearied of telling customers that she can only guess when more will come. She recently received a pot lid she had purchased eight months earlier. She has grown accustomed to paying surcharges to cover the soaring shipping costs of the goods she buys. She has already placed orders for Christmas items like wreaths and baking pans.

“It’s nuts,” she said. “It’s definitely not getting back to normal.”

The challenges confronting Ms. Gjesdal’s shop, Carrot Seed Kitchen, are a testament to the breadth and persistence of the chaos roiling the global economy, as manufacturers and the shipping industry contend with an unrelenting pandemic.

Delays, product shortages, and rising costs continue to bedevil businesses large and small. And consumers are confronted with an experience once rare in modern times: no stock available, and no idea when it will come in.

In the face of an enduring shortage of computer chips, Toyota announced this month that it would slash its global production of cars by 40 percent. Factories around the world are limiting operations — despite powerful demand for their wares — because they cannot buy metal parts, plastics, and raw materials. Construction companies are paying more for paint, lumber, and hardware while waiting weeks and sometimes months to receive what they need.

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A container ship in Port Miami this month. Shipping is at the center of what has gone awry in the global economy.
Credit...Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

In Britain, the National Health Service recently advised that it must delay some blood tests because of a shortage of needed gear. A recent survey by the Confederation of British Industry found the worst shortages of parts in the history of the index, which started in 1977.

The Great Supply Chain Disruption is a central element of the extraordinary uncertainty that continues to frame economic prospects worldwide. If the shortages persist well into next year, that could advance rising prices on a range of commodities. As central banks from the United States to Australia debate the appropriate level of concern about inflation, they must consider a question none can answer with full confidence: Are the shortages and delays merely temporary mishaps accompanying the resumption of business, or something more insidious that could last well into next year?

“There is a genuine uncertainty here,” said Adam S. Posen, a former member of the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee and now the president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. Normalcy might be “another year or two” away, he added.

In March, as global shipping prices spiked and as many goods became scarce, conventional wisdom had it that the trouble was largely the result of a surplus of orders reflecting extraordinary shifts in demand. Consumers in the United States and other wealthy countries had taken pandemic lockdowns as the impetus to add gaming consoles and exercise bikes to their homes, swamping the shipping industry with cargo, and exhausting the supplies of many components. After a few months, many assumed, factories would catch up with demand, and ships would work through the backlog.

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Construction companies are paying more for lumber and hardware, while waiting weeks and sometimes months to receive what they need.
Credit...Karen E. Segrave for The New York Times

That is not what happened.

Just as the health crisis has proved stubborn and unpredictable, the turmoil in international commerce has gone on longer than many expected because shortages and delays in some products have made it impossible to make others.

At the same time, many companies had slashed their inventories in recent years, embracing lean production to cut costs and boost profits. That left minimal margin for error.

A giant ship that became lodged in the Suez Canal this year, halting traffic on a vital waterway linking Europe to Asia for a week, added to the mayhem on the seas. So did a series of temporary coronavirus-related closures of key ports in China.

The world has gained a painful lesson in how interconnected economies are across vast distances, with delays and shortages in any one place rippling out nearly everywhere.

A shipping container that cannot be unloaded in Los Angeles because too many dockworkers are in quarantine is a container that cannot be loaded with soybeans in Iowa, leaving buyers in Indonesia waiting, and potentially triggering a shortage of animal feed in Southeast Asia.

An unexpected jump in orders for televisions in Canada or Japan exacerbates the shortage of computer chips, forcing auto manufacturers to slow production lines from South Korea to Germany to Brazil.

“There is no end in sight,” said Alan Holland, chief executive of Keelvar, a company based in Cork, Ireland, that makes software used to manage supply chains. “Everybody should be assuming we are going to have an extended period of disruptions.”

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PP Control & Automation designs and builds systems for companies that make machinery for a wide range of industries.
Credit...Mary Turner for The New York Times

In the West Midlands of England, Tony Hague has tired of trying to predict when the madness will end.

His company, PP Control & Automation, designs and builds systems for companies that make machinery used in a range of industries, from food processing to power generation. Demand for his products is expanding, and his roughly 240 employees have been working at full capacity. Still, he is contending with shortages.

One customer in England that makes machines to seal packaged food has been hobbled by its inability to secure needed parts. Its supplier in Japan used to take four to six weeks to deliver key devices; now it takes half a year. The Japanese factory has struggled to secure its own electrical components, most of them produced in Asia and using computer chips. Auto manufacturers’ desperation to secure chips has made those components harder to obtain.

“It’s definitely getting worse,” Mr. Hague said. “It hasn’t bottomed out yet.”

For the global economy, shipping is at the center of the explanation for what has gone awry.

As Americans enduring lockdowns filled basements with treadmills and kitchens with mixers, they generated extra demand for Chinese-made factory goods. At the same time, millions of shipping containers — the building blocks of sea cargo — were scattered around the globe, used to deliver protective equipment like face masks.

The container shortages were exacerbated by delays in unloading cargo at American ports because workers stayed home to slow the pandemic’s spread.

Then, in late March, came the fiasco in the Suez Canal, the pathway for about 12 percent of the world’s trade. With hundreds of other ships blocked, the impact played out for months.

In May, China shut down a huge container port near Shenzhen — one of the nation’s leading industrial cities — after a small outbreak of a coronavirus variant. The port did not resume operations for several weeks.

Then, in the middle of August, Chinese authorities shut down a container terminal near the city of Ningbo after one employee tested positive. Ningbo is the world’s third-largest container port, so its closure held the potential to snowball into a global event, even threatening the supply of goods to American stores in time for Black Friday sales around Thanksgiving.

By Wednesday, the Ningbo terminal was back in operation. But China’s decision to close it because of a single Covid case resonated as a warning that the government might shut other ports.

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Eric Poses has seen international shipping costs for his board games soar, from $6,000 to $7,000 before the pandemic to $26,000 now, and they are expected to go even higher.
Credit...Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

In Miami Beach, Eric Poses, an inventor of board games, developed a product aptly named for the pandemic: The Worst-Case Scenario Card Game, a title that could also be applied to his experience relying on China to make and ship the product.

Before the pandemic, shipping a 40-foot container of games from Shanghai to the warehouse he uses in Michigan cost $6,000 to $7,000, Mr. Poses said. His next shipment, scheduled to leave China in mid-September, will cost at least $26,000. And his freight agent warned him that the price will most likely rise, to $35,000, because of rail and trucking difficulties in the United States.

Cheap and reliable sea transport has long been a foundational part of international trade, allowing manufacturers to shift production far and wide in search of low-wage labor and cheap materials.

Columbia Sportswear has typified the trend, expanding from its base in Portland, Ore., to become a global outdoor gear brand. The company has relied on factories in Asia to make its goods and taken the ocean cargo network for granted.

“It’s sort of like, every day when you get up in the morning, you turn on the lights and the lights always work,” said Timothy Boyle, Columbia’s chief executive.

But the price of moving goods to the United States from Asia is up as much as tenfold since the beginning of the pandemic, and Columbia might have to reconsider its traditional mode.

“It’s a question of how long this lasts,” Mr. Boyle said.

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When a small virus outbreak closed a huge container port near Shenzhen from late May through late June, huge numbers of extra containers flooded other Chinese ports like Shanghai, shown here.
Credit...Keith Bradsher/The New York Times

Some trade experts suggest that product shortages are now being exacerbated by rational reactions to recent events. Because of the pandemic, humanity now knows the fear of running out of toilet paper. That experience may be driving consumers and businesses to order more and earlier than previously needed.

Ordinarily, the peak demand for trans-Pacific shipping begins in late summer and ends in the winter, after the holiday season products are stocked. But last winter, the peak season never ended, and now it has merged with the rush for this holiday season — reinforcing the pressure on factories, warehouses, ships, and trucks.

“We have this vicious cycle of all the natural human instincts responding, and making the problem worse,” said Willy C. Shih, an international trade expert at Harvard Business School. “I don’t see it getting better until next year.”

The American economy is growing at its fastest clip in a quarter-century, yet it remains far from normal, with some workers and small-business owners facing increasingly tough times while others thrive. That divergence poses a challenge to President Biden, who has promoted the nation’s economic recovery as a selling point in his quest to win support for a multitrillion-dollar spending agenda that could cement his legacy.

A summer that many business owners and consumers had hoped would bring a return to prepandemic activity has delivered waves of disappointment in key areas. Restaurants are short on staff and long on wait times. Prices have spiked for food, gasoline, and many services. Shoppers are struggling to find used cars. Retailers are struggling to hire. Beach towns are jammed with tourists, but office towers in major cities remain ghost towns on weekdays, with the promised return of workers delayed by a resurgent coronavirus.

The University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index suffered one of its largest monthly losses in 40 years in August, driven by the rapidly spreading Delta variant and high inflation. The survey’s chief economist, Richard Curtin, said the drop also reflected “an emotional response, from dashed hopes that the pandemic would soon end and lives could return to normal.”

Mr. Biden and his advisers are confident that many of those issues will improve in the fall. They expect hiring to continue at a strong pace or even accelerate, fattening worker paychecks and powering consumer spending. They remain hopeful that a reinvigorated labor market will take the place of the fading stimulus from the president’s $1.9 trillion economic aid bill signed in the spring, and that the latest wave of the virus will not dampen growth significantly.

On Friday, they released new projections forecasting that growth will hit 7.1 percent this year after adjusting for inflation, its highest rate since 1983.

“Our perspective is one of looking at an economy that is growing at historic rates,” Brian Deese, the director of Mr. Biden’s National Economic Council, said in an interview.

But there is mounting evidence that the coming months of the recovery could be more halting and chaotic than administration officials predict, potentially imperiling millions of left-behind workers as their federal support runs dry.

Private forecasters have pared back growth expectations for the end of the year, citing drags on spending from the spread of the Delta variant and from the nationwide expiration of enhanced unemployment benefits next Monday. Emerging research suggests the end of those benefits might not immediately drive Americans back to the workforce to fill the record level of open jobs nationwide.

“People will be surprised at how much the economy decelerates over the next year as the stimulus boost fades,” said Jim O’Sullivan, the chief U.S. macro strategist for TD Securities.

Administration officials do acknowledge some potential hurdles. Some big-city downtowns may never return to their pre-pandemic realities, and the economy will not be fully “normal” until the virus is fully under control. They stress that increasing the nation’s vaccination rate is the most important economic policy the administration can pursue to accelerate growth and lift consumer confidence, which has slumped this summer.

“I don’t want to put a timeline on this,” said Cecilia Rouse, the chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. “We won’t feel totally completely normal until we have, whether we want to call it herd immunity or a greater fraction or percentage of the American population is vaccinated.”

“As we conquer the virus,” she said, “we will regain normalcy.”

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The hospitality sector still employs millions fewer people than it did in February 2020.
Credit...Gabriela Bhaskar/The New York Times
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The construction sector has regained most of the jobs lost early in the pandemic. 
Credit...Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

The economy’s rebound this year has been stronger than almost anyone predicted last winter, a result of the initial wave of vaccinations and the boost from Mr. Biden’s stimulus bill. Gross domestic product returned to its pre-pandemic level last spring, and retail sales have soared far beyond their pre-Covid path.

Yet the recovery remains uneven and rattled by a rare set of economic crosswinds. In some sectors, consumer demand remains depressed. In others, spending is high but supply constraints — whether for materials or workers or both — are pushing up prices.

For instance, the construction sector has regained most of the jobs lost early in the pandemic, and other industries, such as warehousing, have actually grown. But restaurants and hotels still employ millions of fewer people than they did in February 2020. The result: There are more college graduates working in the United States today than when the pandemic began, but five million fewer workers without a college degree.

Compounding the problem, employment in the biggest cities fell further than in smaller cities and rural areas, and it has rebounded more slowly. Employment among workers without a college degree living in the biggest cities is down more than 5 percent since February 2020, compared with about 2 percent for workers without a college degree in other parts of the country.

Even as millions of people remain out of work, businesses across the country are struggling to fill a record number of job openings. Many businesses have blamed expanded unemployment benefits for the labor shortage. If they are right, a flood of workers should be returning to the job market when the benefits end after Labor Day. But recent research has suggested that the benefits are playing at most a small role in keeping people out of the workforce. That suggests that other factors are holding potential workers back, such as health concerns and child care issues, which might not ease quickly.

The Michigan sentiment data and the fade-out of stimulus benefits suggest consumers may be set to pull back spending further. But other data shows Americans increased their savings during the pandemic, in part by banking previous rounds of government support, and could draw on those funds to maintain spending for months to come.

Administration officials hope to buck up consumers and workers by pushing Congress to pass the two halves of Mr. Biden’s longer-term economic agenda: a bipartisan infrastructure bill and a larger spending bill that could extend expanded tax credits for parents, subsidize child care and reduce prescription drug costs, among other initiatives.

“Our hope is that the new normal coming out of this crisis is not simply a return to the status quo and the economy, which was one that was not working for most working families,” Mr. Deese said.

The virus remains the biggest wild card for the outlook. There is little evidence in government data that the spread of the Delta variant has suppressed spending in retail stores. But air travel, as measured by the number of people screened at airport security checkpoints, has tailed off in recent days after returning to about 80 percent of where it was during the same week in 2019.

Restaurant bookings on OpenTable, which had nearly returned to normal in June and July, are back down to 10 percent below their pre-pandemic level. Data from Homebase, which provides time-management software to small businesses, shows a sharp decline in the number of hours worked at restaurants and entertainment venues.

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Restaurant bookings on OpenTable, which had nearly returned to normal in June and July, are back down to 10 percent below their prepandemic level.
Credit...Karsten Moran for The New York Times
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Air travel has tailed off in recent days after returning to about 80 percent of its prepandemic level this summer.
Credit...Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

The variant is already casting a shadow over the new school year, with some schools, including a middle school in Fredericksburg, Va., temporarily returning to virtual learning amid new outbreaks.

Urban downtowns, once hopeful for a fall rebound inactivity, are bracing for prolonged delays in white-collar workers returning to their offices.

“Our No. 1 job is to get office workers back — that’s the driver of the downtown,” said Paul Levy, the president and chief executive of the Center City District, a local business development group in Philadelphia.

Mr. Levy’s group estimates that 30 percent of downtown office workers have returned so far to Philadelphia. It had been expecting that number to hit 75 to 80 percent after Labor Day, and had built an advertising campaign around the idea that the fall would mark a milestone in the return to normalcy. But now major employers such as Comcast have delayed their return dates, worrying business owners.

Yehuda Sichel signed a lease for Huda, his gourmet sandwich shop in Philadelphia, on Feb. 29, 2020 — two weeks before the pandemic sent virtually his entire prospective customer base home indefinitely.

He made it through the pandemic winter with takeout orders, holiday meal kits, and some creativity. A short-rib special on a snow day when many other restaurants were closed helped him make payroll during a, particularly grim period. Last spring, business began to improve, and Mr. Sichel invested in new equipment and a new kitchen floor in hopes of a surge in business once office workers returned. Now he doubts he will see one.

“September was supposed to be this huge boom,” he said. “Now, September is going to be fine. I’m sure we’ll see a little bump, but not the doubling in business that I was hoping for.”