Working all the time – Part 2

Not my writing, but I wanted to share a link to an interesting article in the Financial Times this week on the subject of workaholics. Emma Jacobs’s article challenges some of our ideas around workaholic behaviour, stating that it is not necessarily the ‘stressed-out businessman in a suit’.

She argues that the need to always be busy and not feel comfortable relaxing could be an indicator of ‘workaholic’ tendencies or a sign that excessive working is becoming compulsive. She raises an interesting point about attitudes to work: in some cases people can only feel worthwhile when they’re ‘productive’, and so cannot allow themselves to rest or fully relax outside of work.

The article also mentions that behaviour learnt in childhood can affect our working lives. Some learnt at an early age that they would only get attention from their parents when they did well at school, which drives them to over-achieve and this attitude is then carried forward into the workplace. This reminded me of the book Affluenza in which British psychologist Oliver James discusses this issue. In discussing modern Western education policy and methods, he describes the effects of continual assessment on over-achieving children who then transfer their need to gain approval based on their performance from their parents to their employer:

“Wherever you look in the English-speaking world, a new obsession with exam performance is to be seen. Compared with previous generations, schoolchildren are menaced from ever-younger ages by assessment…The key message is that the purpose of education is not to find out what has intrinsic interest for you, but to work hard at school for long-term financial reward. . . . [This] is a prescription for the absence of flow during work, for low self-esteem and a host of other problems. Ironically, on top of that it is death to the capacity to think imaginatively – the foundation of our economic future if the ‘skills economy’ is as important as politicians are always telling us it is.”

Another important point which the article mentions is that technology and multi-tasking often make it hard to focus. We can be ‘at work’ for more hours in the day, but ultimately get far less done than had we switched off.

Of course, not everyone who works long hours has a problem, and what can be classed as ‘over-work’ is entirely subjective, just as we all have different thresholds where stress becomes harmful to us. But there is a need to examine the compulsive component to excessive working, especially in these times of job insecurity and reducing living standards.

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Working hard = working all the time?

The ever-elusive 'balance'. How do we get it?

The ever-elusive ‘balance’. How do we get it?

The ongoing debate around work-life balance, working unsociable hours, and long hours cultures really concerns me. Alexandra Levit, (author and speaker on business and the workplace) cites ‘worker burnout’ as a trend we’ll see increasing over the next 20 years. Private health insurer BUPA, perhaps unsurprisingly, warn companies to incorporate mental health into wellbeing programs. I’m sure we will start to see more cases brought against employers in the future involving mental health issues and workers seeking time off or compensation due to stress-related burnout.

But rather than wait for burnout cases to arise, or for ourselves to be affected, we should be putting our efforts into seeking a better balance now.

In many organisations it still seems purely down to the individual employee to find their own balance. We continually hear about working mothers trying to impossibly ‘have it all’ (i.e. both a career and a family), but this is arguably a problem for most of the working population as we all try to balance staying healthy, keeping up regular exercise, having a social life and outside interests, keeping up with family and friends, all alongside the demands of our careers. How can we ‘push back’ against all the claims on our time, when we are also being told to ‘lean in’ and give our careers everything we’ve got in order to be successful?

Why do we work long hours?

In some industries long hours seem to be accepted as part of the culture, and many are resigned to working all hours of the day or sending emails at unsociable hours in order to maintain visibility and show they are committed. This could be down to workers trying to appear extra productive in order to be favoured (‘superhero’ complex), or simply a result of pressure to fit in and be a ‘team player’.

Or is this in fact a facet of the recent recession and stemming from feelings of job insecurity? Do we hoard work in order to appear indispensable and safeguard our careers? Long hours could be an unhealthy extension of the ‘presenteeism’ that was reported since the start of the recession, or quite simply down to organisations not taking on enough staff.

Long hours cultures could also be down to poor leadership modelling bad behaviours or expecting staff to be available at all hours of the day (and night). I recently read an interview with a CEO of a large international organisation who said that he couldn’t totally disengage from work while he was on holiday as he had to be available for particular events that were going on. Was there no one for him to delegate to during those few weeks in the year? What is the impact of him being available all the time – does it raise the expectation that other staff will need to do the same?

Many of us find it hard to say no to our bosses and worry about what would happen if we made it clear that we have a life outside work. But at the same time most of us would be far more productive at work if we could satisfy the demands of our lives outside.

Technology is often cited as a cause of long hours, and it can be difficult to switch off from the gadgets that are supposed to make our working lives easier. But if this is the case then we have got to learn to get on top of it, as the smartphones and ever-expanding connectivity are not going to go away. We need technology to work for us, not take over our lives.

Or do we simply work all the time because we enjoy it? Arguably, the more engaged we are with our work the more hours we put in. Even so, we all need to switch off at some point to avoid cognitive drain.

Do we honestly admit that there is a problem?

It’s still something of a taboo to talk about mental health issues in the workplace. When I’ve raised it in discussions over long hours I’ve been looked at as if I’m talking a foreign language. ‘Resilience’ is often used as a euphemism for not showing any signs of weakness, but then we’re back at the ‘superhero’ mentality of trying too hard to satisfy our boss’s demands on our time. The recent Bank of America case is an extreme one, but it should be a wake-up call to organisations not taking responsibility for monitoring working hours.

However, the more hours we put in it’s not a given that we are achieving any more. And more hours worked for the same output is not a sign of ‘commitment’, it is simply unproductive and wasteful. Do we really need a 60-hour week now to do a ‘full-time’ job?

We also need to think about the return we get on the hours we put in. If we honestly add up the number of hours in a week that we are effectively ‘at work’ (either in the workplace, or picking up emails outside), and then from that work out our average hourly rate of pay I’m sure many of us would be feeling rather under-paid!

The fact is that cumulative stress is a reality, and even though organisations don’t like to talk about burnout it definitely happens. Organisations shouldn’t wait until their star performer is unable to perform, or until they’re fighting a disability claim. We should be talking about wellbeing at the outset.

What will it take to get a better balance?

Companies dish out tablets, smartphones and laptops, and many managers expect their workers to be available at the drop of a hat, but at some point they may be forced via case law to take responsibility for monitoring hours put in.

Senior executives should be modelling and rewarding better behaviours in their staff that result in a happier, healthier, more productive and stable workforce. I always counsel managers to be very careful rewarding their staff for putting in extra hours. And it’s not just to avoid a stress claim in the future, it’s to give that staff member a chance to have a life outside work and not buckle under pressure.

In the meantime, I think what’s needed is for us all to examine our own motivations around work to keep the long hours in check. What gives us satisfaction in our work? We need to guard against the performance anxiety that is extending outside our working hours and learn when ‘good enough’ is actually good enough. If we pride ourselves too much on our work achievements it can be very difficult to switch off, and it’s all too easy now to get sucked back in via the endlessly pinging noise of the Blackberry or iPad.

Give yourself a break, and put that smartphone in a drawer when you get home. Hold your own and take a proper holiday. If your manager grumbles, comfort yourself in the knowledge that he’d complain more if you simply keeled over through stress.

Robot dance in interview shocker

There are urban myths and horror stories around recruitment – and I’ve personally cringed through some in my time in HR – but last week I was astounded to learn that Currys (electronics store in UK) actually asked their interview candidates to robot dance during an assessment day.

Is this what happens when the labour market becomes the employers’ market? Or is this the inevitable result of letting clueless managers run a recruitment process? Perhaps it’s just a case of life imitating art – the candidates involved must have thought they’d walked into a scene from The Office.

I’ve heard in the past an indictment of HR people that we make it hard to hire talented people: through lengthy application forms, opaque recruitment processes, taking too long over decisions, not communicating with good candidates in good time… And honestly, how many people really need to interview someone before you can hire them?

But surely someone in this organisation could or should have put a stop to the robot-dancing assessment. By all means use innovation in recruitment and design assessments to find the required personal qualities (in this case: extrovertion? Side question: is ‘sense of humour’ a competency?) But don’t lose sight of the fact that you need to treat your candidates with respect, and remember that in these days of social media you can really do damage to your company brand even if you were just trying to have a bit of fun.

Candidates, if you’re ever asked to robot dance in an interview and you’re not comfortable with it: just walk out. Trust me, you do not want to work there that badly.

Back to school

The sun literally setting on your holiday.

The sun literally setting on your holiday.

It seems that a lot of people are experiencing that ‘back to school’ feeling now that the summer is coming to an end. A story about post-holiday blues was apparently one of the most shared stories on the BBC news website this week, with a list of return-to-work afflictions ranging from the apocalyptic commuter train to having to wear socks again.

September still has that sense of dread about it as we trudge back to work after a few days or weeks of freedom over the summer (or whatever time of year you go on holiday). The over-stuffed inbox waiting for you, along with the tasks you thought you’d delegated to others while you were away which now swamp you precisely when you’re least inclined to do anything.

Coming back to work after a long break can also make you realise all at once the things that you dislike about your current job. You start thinking that perhaps you should be doing something different, that you definitely prefer being outside to sitting at a desk, that you were built for much more enlightening things…

I’ve read in the past that statistically more people apply for new jobs on Tuesdays. The reason being that we search for new vacancies online over the weekend, come into work on a Monday only to be reminded of all the things we dislike about our jobs, go home on a Monday to write the application, and then submit it on Tuesday. In this way, coming back to work after a long holiday can feel like one long Monday morning. Which makes September feel like Tuesday when you really should do something to make the situation better.

But you should resist any knee-jerk reaction to apply for a new job simply because the current one is a big disappointment after returning from holiday.

Try to remember what it is that you enjoy about your current role, rather than focusing on what you don’t. And try to reward yourself with small treats to keep yourself going (in my case the Korean deli round the corner from my office). You could also use this time as a wake-up call to do something about the bits you don’t enjoy about your job, set yourself new targets or look for more interesting projects or training to get involved in. The ‘back-to-school’ period could be your impetus to try something new.

(But if by October every day still feels like Monday morning, you could read this post for some tips on the best way to leave your job).