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Working in a Long Hours Culture (Part 1): What Lies Beneath?


In 2007 the founder of The Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, collapsed and woke up in a pool of blood, with a cut over her eye and a broken cheek bone. Fearing a brain tumour or heart problem, the diagnosis was a bit of a surprise: exhaustion and sleep deprivation from overwork.

You may not experience these extreme effects of working long hours although if you are putting in 50+ hours a week, it is taking its toll. But you probably know that, so the last thing you need is some smart alec using science and emotional arguments to convince you to stop it. We’ll come to those later.

In this series of posts I want to suggest that long hours and being ‘busy’ do not equate with being productive or effective. I need to point out that this heart-felt treatise may be more the product of getting it wrong rather than right, although in more recent senior roles, I learnt some lessons that made for a sensible length to the working day, a habit of not allowing work to follow me home, whilst still hitting performance goals, and being part of a successful team and organisation.

So, I want to explore what drives these long hours. I will offer some suggestions that will give you headroom to do the work that you really care about, and help you develop some habits and rituals that will minimise disruptions and distractions, providing you with a different way of looking at your work routines.

Even if we are spending more time working from home, the pressures are still there; one study suggested that employees were converting commuting time into working hours and were likely to chalk up an extra month’s work over the course of a year, so much of what we will look at here is relevant wherever we are working.

If long hours working is not an issue for you, you may coach someone for whom it is, so hopefully there will be something here for everyone.

What drives us?

First, a question: What is driving the long hours? Here’s a few reasons:

The nature of work. There is a never ending supply of knowledge work, the kind of work most of us do. There are no daily quotas. Like Sisyphus’ stone, it’s still at the bottom of the hill the next day.

The agenda grows. Whatever the organisation, the drive for efficiency often means there’s more to do and fewer people to do it. Add to that new policy initiatives, restructurings, downsizings and it is hard to keep up, let alone manage it all.

The ‘always on and always available’ culture. When technology crept into the workplace it promised more leisure time than we knew what to do with. But now we have the ability to connect with anyone, anywhere, anytime, we check our phones every two minutes, there’s pressure to keep on top of our email when not in the office, and a social media presence to maintain.

Our days have become super-fragmented. We use metaphors such as juggling balls and spinning plates. Most managers spend around 50% of their time in meetings, which is not where the real work gets done. We are also easily distracted by, and react to, the ‘ping’ of an email or a text, or a colleague who wants ‘just two minutes.’ These are just a few of the things that stop us focusing on the work that makes a real difference, so we get into the office earlier, stay later or use the evenings and weekends to catch up.

What drives us personally. The pressure to put in the hours often comes from within: we need to keep on top of a job that pays the mortgage; it may be our own ambition; a desire to develop and progress; status and, yes, a sense of pride and enjoyment. There are also external drivers such as: peer pressure (everyone else does); the unrealistic design of a job; an over-demanding boss; or a looming deadline (which may be okay if it isn’t the norm).

Here’s a couple of things to think about:

  1. If you feel trapped by a long hours culture, what is driving you?

  2. Which aspects of the ‘always on and always available’ culture are distracting you from doing your best work?

Next time:

The three elements that make up any job and why you should spend less time on two of them.

Science corner:

Admittedly, conclusions from some of the literature around the detrimental effects of long hours working on productivity and health are not always conclusive. That said, the overall messages are pretty clear from a variety of research:

A UCL study from 2011 suggests that working more than 11 hours a day increases your risk of heart disease by 67 per cent, compared with those working a standard 7-8 hours a day.

A seven-year longitudinal study quoted in the American Journal of Epidemiology suggested that regular working of 55 hours a week resulted in poorer performance in a battery of cognitive tests compared to those working 40 hours per week.

(More next time)

Thoughts, comments, questions?

Does this sound familiar? We would love to start a conversation. Please feel free to use the box below.

John publishes a monthly blog which you can find by following this link

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