These days it seems that we are all trapped on the workaholic treadmill. Working hours in the UK have risen since the financial crisis, despite the explosion in part-time, low paid work, with full-time workers now spending longer at the office. Whether this is motivated by fear or necessity, it suggests we are reluctant victims of our own good fortune for having a job with a desk and decent hours.
Technological advances in mobile devices means that employees are also working around the clock and at multiple locations – geography, time and place are no longer the obstacles that once shaped working hours and necessity for a central working space. Traditions are being eroded, and with it go expectations. It appears impossible for employees to ever truly switch off in this age of digitisation.
If we are permanently ‘on’, then it suggests we are never ‘off’. Consequently, stress, anxiety and ill-health can be a direct result of being overworked. Although, in this period of job insecurity, appearing overworked and ‘on’ looks better for our chances of retention than being underworked and comfortable.
Yet this short-term strategy is ultimately doomed. Long-hours are associated with a variety of illnesses – often serious. From heart disease, strokes and obesity, to the ‘unseen’ illnesses of stress, anxiety and burnout. The brightest flame burns quickest, so they say, and putting it all in too early can result in a premature ending.
It is a predicament employees are beginning to understand. According to the Office of National Statistics, one in ten Britain’s would like to work fewer hours, with a high number willing to take a pay-cut to make their wishes a reality. Interestingly this includes men, and not just women who want to spent time with their young children.
It is important that employers take this employee discontent seriously, because up to 10% of employees leave organisations when they don’t feel supported in their work/life balance preferences. What’s more, working too many hours makes employees ill and ineffective, resulting in a drop in productivity and/or time off work due to sickness. Long–term, employers may be better served offering greater flexibility when it comes to working hours.
The German employment ministry announced radical measures to quell employees working long hours, including the banning of managers from calling or emailing staff out of hours, except for emergencies. This follows similar moves by companies such as Volkswagen, BMW, and Puma.
Moderates would have a reasonable argument suggesting that Germany’s bold moves are too forceful, and companies would be better considering flexible working patterns that are more suitable for their circumstances. What works in the service industry may not be appropriate for a security or delivery firm. As such, rather than ring-fencing traditional working hours, as is the case in Germany, companies should look at flexible time across the working day, with more emphasis on performance as an output rather than time spent at the desk.
Few would argue that working long hours is only productive if each minute is well spent. Instead companies should look to cut out dead time in the working day and give employees the tools to work when they can offer their full-engagement – for some this would mean dropping hours in the morning to successfully navigate the school-run, only to make up the time in the evening once the children were sleeping.
It isn’t advisable to force flexible time on every employee, only those who would benefit from it. If people feel compelled to work all hours of the day, ultimately it will be there choice. Stopping this freedom could be seen as a serious challenge to the concept of meritocracy.