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.
- Juggling the 5 balls of life – speech given by Brian Dyson, former CEO of Coca-Cola, in 1996
- A summary of an interesting Twitter debate on this topic: Stress, the cognitive cliff and the CIO (business value exchange.com)
- How to avoid burnout (www.projecteve.com)