Putting in extra effort and extra hours is necessary sometimes – but when it becomes the norm it could be damaging to staff wellbeing and productivity, Georgina Fuller asks how organisations can deal with a culture of working excessive hours
The tragic and untimely death of Merrill Lynch intern Moritz Erhardt, 21, who died after reportedly working three ‘all-nighters’ at the American investment bank, highlighted the awful consequences of the City’s prevalent long hours culture. Friends of Erhardt, who had neglected to tell the bank he was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2010, reportedly claimed he had been forced to work through the night eight times in a two-week period in the hope of securing a job at the fiercely competitive bank.
It’s not just interns and graduates working extensive and exhausting hours though. Around three million of us, or 12% of the UK workforce, regularly work more than 48 hours (the limit set by the EU’s Working Time Directive to protect people’s health and safety at work), according to figures from the Office for National Statistics. Some industries, such as financial services and the legal sector, have a culture where working long hours to prove yourself is very much ‘the norm.’ But can working till you drop really be that productive or is it something of a false economy?
The need to impress
Paul Sellers, policy officer at the TUC, which runs workSMART, an advisory organisation set up by the union to encourage people to work their proper hours, says working long hours can be counterproductive, although many young people still think it’s the way to get ahead. “Common sense tells us that if people regularly work long hours they will become tired, and both the pace and quality of their work will fall,” he notes. “In certain high-prestige occupations, however, many young people are buying into the idea that getting a job is now a Darwinian competition.”
Mary Gregory, executive coach at Penna HR consultancy, says the economic downturn has made the situation worse. “With demands increasing across all industries, companies are expected to always be ahead of the curve and do more with less,” she notes. “Consequently, employees have to work harder and longer to keep pace with the competition – particularly in a fast moving globalised marketplace where firms have to fight off competition and challenges from both at home and abroad.”
Rapid advances in technology have also made it possible to communicate 24 hours a day across the globe, which has had an impact on the traditional culture of working 9-5. Gregory explains: “Now clients expect instant replies to e-mails, customers demand shopping deliveries on the same day, and there is seldom a moment where ‘closed’ actually means just that. Whilst many of us are incredibly grateful for the transformational effect of technological advances, the sense of instant gratification and 24/7 contact has become expected in the workplace, with quite often a detrimental effect on employees.”
It’s not all doom and gloom though and there is clear evidence that things are slowly getting better. “In recent years, more employers have been waking up to the disadvantages of long hours and are acting to put a stop to them,” says Sellers. “This has usually meant rethinking the way work is organised, with a focus on improving productivity through employee involvement and empowerment.”
And the rewards for employers for promoting such practices as flexible working, home working and job shares are huge. “The payout for enterprises which move away from excessive hours is usually higher productivity, along with reduced sickness absence and turnover. These are prizes worth having,” Sellers notes.
Top tips to help stamp out a long hours culture
- Lead by example, says Mary Gregory, executive coach at Penna HR consultancy. “Senior professionals should highlight and role model the importance of leaving work on time when they can. Working late shouldn’t be a competition, it should be out of necessity when on deadline or as a means of getting on top of your workload.”
- Specify clearly to customers and stakeholders what your operating hours are and make it clear that you are not open for business 24 hours a day.
- Promote flexible working and home working, especially if your employees are working across different timezones and/or have a long commute.
- Don't overlook part-time or job-share employees for promotion, as this sends the wrong message, advises Paul Sellers, policy officer at the TUC. Also, actively monitor colleagues who are working long hours that could be detrimental to their health and try to manage their hours downwards.
- “Try to identify competitor companies that have moved away from long hours, as these provide the most compelling narrative,” says Sellers. “As a first step, try introducing ‘Work Your Proper Hours Fridays’, introducing a company policy that nobody can work more than their contracted hours on that day, except in dire emergencies.”