Working too much?

Regular visitors to this blog will have read about my previous experiences of Economics Burlesque. Last night was the first session after the summer, with the New Economics Foundation’s Anna Coote leading the discussion on the benefits of reducing working hours.

This is a subject that I’ve thought about previously, and even blogged about. I believe that there are a lot of people who work more hours than they rationally should: the benefits to the individual and society of extra ‘free’ time (perhaps spent with family or friends, or on education, creative or community pursuits) would outweigh the value that a company gets from you working those extra hours.

I’m not an enormous fan of rules to restrict working hours, partly because of difficulties in measuring exactly what constitutes work, partly because different people have justifiably different needs, and partly because I don’t like to use “making people happier” as a justification for restricting their freedom. I do, however, believe there are other things that can and should be done to create a trend towards lower working hours.

It is a complex issue, and last night’s discussion managed to cover many aspects:

  • cultural norms and the gender dimension
  • the relationship between time worked and productivity, and between time worked and quality of work done
  • the need for organisational change and employee empowerment to support it
  • inequality, job security, and whether hourly income would need to rise alongside a reduction in hours
  • the difficulty in defining work
  • the role for politics and laws (and tax policy)
  • whether some people would benefit from support in finding suitable activities for their non-work time

New Economics Foundation published a book last year: Time on our Side. I’ve downloaded it to read on my Kindle, and it is 3rd in line in my reading list (if only I had more time!), but no doubt once I’ve finished it I’ll have more to say. But in the meantime, I thought I’d make a few comments on my own situation with respect to working time.

Other than two stints in consulting, I’ve always worked in environments where the top employees were traders. The great thing about working with traders is that it shatters the base assumption that time worked is a proxy for value added. Good employees are in a position to add so much more value than their colleagues, so most managers know not to judge or reward their employees on time worked. I know there is still a lot wrong with paying people on short-term, unsustainable measures of value that can be gamed – but I’d rather be rewarded based on an approximation of value than on time worked (which was how things mostly worked in big consulting organisations).

I’d also say, in these trading environments, contrary to what you might think, I’ve always had management that wanted to keep their staff happily employed. I’ve had several colleagues and bosses work part time or take sabbaticals, and I’ve always been encouraged to take my holidays and get out of the office at a sensible time. I’m sure that is partly because it makes good business sense (it costs a lot to replace someone who leaves, and engaged employees do add a lot more value in creative roles involving judgement and autonomy), but I do also believe that good managers have enough empathy to genuinely want their employees to be happy.

I know I’m lucky to be in this position, but I do think that there are a lot more people in this position that would be suggested by the common view that employers are all forcing employees to work long hours without caring about the impact on productivity or employee contentness.

Even with all that, I do choose to work some pretty long hours. That said, I do find it helpful to make a point of regularly checking that my hours are sensible, by asking the following questions:

  • Is my work bad for my health? I do my best to make sure I get enough sleep and exercise, and am not spending too much of my week doing any one thing.
  • Are my relationships with family and friends suffering? I very much like to think that if I had children, or responsibilities to elderly family members, I’d significantly reduce the amount of time I devoted to work. I also make a real point of prioritising time with friends above working outside of working hours. It may sound obvious, but I know that it is possible to prioritise work and later regret it.
  • Is this the most productive use of my time? If I’m putting in extra hours at work, I want to be sure that there isn’t something more productive that I should be doing. If reading a book, starting a personal project, writing a blog post, or taking an online course would ultimately help me more, I prioritise that. If there is something that would make me happy, I should do that instead of staying late.
  • Am I contributing to an unhealthy work culture? In the same way that the good managers I’ve worked for want me to be working and living happily and sustainably, I want the same of my colleagues. I try to actively reduce any implicit suggestion that because I’m working longer hours, others are expected to, and do speak up to promote sustainable balance.
  • Am I appropriately weighing up value to myself, to employers, to my community or to the world? This is a tough question, but I know that focussing on one or two of these at the expense of the others isn’t sustainable, so I do try to think about this.

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