Breaking away from the cult of over working

The pandemic has intensified the need for workers to find a work-life balance. Despite this, the cult of overworking continues to thrive and busy working professionals are now working more hours than ever. Its decision time. Should we prioritise our wellbeing, or prioritise sending an email at 2am to impress the boss? Is it activity or productivity we value most?

For many of us the current Covid pandemic has been a source of fear, stress, anxiety, and sadness. The flipside of the pandemic is a once in a lifetime opportunity for lasting and positive change. According to a recent Prudential Worker survey[i], 1 in 4 workers is preparing to look for opportunities with a new employer once the pandemic threat has subsided. More than 40% of people who responded to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index [ii], a global survey of over 30,000 people in 31 countries, said they are considering leaving their employer this year. Employees are increasingly favouring workplaces that offer them more opportunities for career advancement, a company culture aligned to their own purpose and values and the opportunity to continue to work more flexibly; prioritising a better work life balance over salary.

Now that billions of workers have been introduced to flexible, remote work arrangements, they want to make it permanent. The Prudential survey confirmed that 87% of American workers who have been working remotely during the pandemic would prefer to continue working from home at least one day a week, post-COVID. Among all workers, 68% suggest that a hybrid workplace model is ideal. And 42% of current remote workers insist that if their current company doesn’t continue offering remote work options long term, they will look for a new job at an organization that does.

The pandemic has intensified the need for workers to find a work-life balance. A survey by career site Joblist[iii] revealed that just over 30% of workers said they’d give up part of their pay for a better work-life balance. My coaching clients, many of whom hold very senior roles, are increasingly questioning how they work and why they work. Whilst I welcome this, its sad to think that it has taken a pandemic which has forced us to change in order to make this much needed shift. Despite this, the cult of overworking continues to thrive. New studies[iv] show that workers around the world are putting in an average of 9.2 hours of unpaid overtime per week – up from 7.3 hours just a year ago. A number of my clients tell me that since the pandemic hit, their work weeks have become longer. Many people are sending emails and other e-messages at midnight or later. The boundaries between our personal and professional lives seem to be dissolving further.

Long working hours often lead to less sleep, or poor quality sleep. Its estimated that poor sleep costs between £25 billion and £36 billion per year.

A lack of sleep has been linked to many of the world’s biggest disasters including:

* The Chernobyl nuclear reactor explosion in 1986 causing 31 deaths. 600,000 workers involved were all exposed to radiation.

* Exxon Valdez Oil Spill in 1989 – Considered to be one of the worst environmental disasters of all time. 42 million litres of oil was split into the sea into off the coast of Alaska.

* The Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986, which killed all seven crew. The top managers had only a couple of hours of sleep the previous night before the launch, leading to poor judgment due to sleep.

*Numerous air crashes and train crashes including the Michigan Train Wreck in 2001, which claimed the lives of train crew and 3,000 gallons of diesel, which cost $1.4 million to clean up.

Why, despite evidence to the contrary, do we continue to think of long hours, overload, stress and exhaustion as a marker of success? The last 10 years has seen an increase in awareness of the risk of burnout and how to prevent it. Why do we still give in to it? For the answer to this question I took a look back in history. People overwork all over the world, for many different reasons. In Japan, a culture of overwork can be traced back to the 1950s. In an effort to rebuild the country after World War Two, the government pushed everyone to work hard for the good of the country. Research on burnout in the 1970s concluded that many people in jobs geared toward helping others, tended to work long hours, leading to emotional and physical exhaustion. This is a trend we have seen repeated in the pandemic. Arguably, the roots of overworking originate in the 16th century.

Overworking – a brief timeline

* 16th Century: Academics trace the roots of the overwork epidemic to the ‘Protestant work ethic’. In the 16th Century that made hard work and the quest for profit seem virtuous.

* 1760 – 1840: A further driver for efficiency arose from the Industrial Revolution. We came to prize productivity, further embedding the value of consistent hard work, at the cost of personal wellbeing.

* 1980s: In the Yuppie age of Thatcher and Reagan, spending long hours at the office became commonplace to support the upwardly mobile lifestyle and the rampant consumerism of the decade. “Money never sleeps”, and “Greed is good, Greed is right” were key messages from 1987’s film Wall Street[v], a film that impacted working lives ad culture. Many think that workaholic vibe that coloured the 1980s as a decade and is still common today.

* 1990s – 2000s: workaholics in hoodies working for tech start-ups told us how they structured their (excessively long) days for maximum greatness. In the process society glorified young entrepreneurs who said they wanted to change the world. Tech entrepreneurs with unhealthy working practices likely to trigger burnout were placed on a pedestal.

* In recent times we have romanticised the notion of work. Billions overwork because somehow we think it’s exciting – a status symbol that puts us on the path to success. Displaying our wealth (or appearance of wealth) on social media post demonstrates to us and the wider world that we’re living a dream life with a dream job. Persistent over workers may feel the need to demonstrate their status and success in the form of a new car or even display their exhaustion as a bizarre kind of trophy.

Nowadays, many people are forced to work long hours simply to pay the rent, pay off debt, or to gain that crucial promotion. Some work long hours because its part of the working culture, and they feel obligated to do so simply keep their jobs.

While overwork is still revered by many, the burnout that inevitably follows is not. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”, characterised by feelings of exhaustion, negative feelings about a job and reduced professional efficacy. The WHO formally recognised burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ in 2019[vi]. Old boundaries between the working day and home time have progressively become eroded. We now work in a 24/7 culture. Social media is 24/7, communication is 24/7, online merchants sell products 24/7, everything is 24/7! As a result we have lost our fixed reference point for the day. Many feel guilty when working late into the evening instead of spending time with their loved ones, and anxious about work when they do finally take time off.

Even though many are working harder, there are some positive signs of change. On TikTok[vii], people are openly discussing their mental health struggles, panic attacks and experiences of burnout. As painful as the pandemic has been, it’s also forced us to explore work-life balance in a whole new way.

Recently, LinkedIn conducted a survey[viii] of more than 5,000 users over two weeks. 50% and 45% of respondents say that hours or location flexibility and work-life balance respectively have become more important to them since the pandemic. The pandemic has made many of us more aware of the things that matter most – health, family, relationships. It has also acted as a disrupter – changing some the routines and systems that kept us on the treadmill.

We have long lamented toxic working practices but done little to challenge the status quo. Now is the time to change the way we work.

Many companies are offering staff access to mental-health programmes for workers. Others are offering perks like complimentary therapy sessions or free access to wellness apps. Despite this experts think it is highly unlikely that we’re entering a new era that prioritises wellbeing over overwork. The hard reality is that companies want to make money. Many organisations are still working with the mind set that if one employee quits because they do not like the working practices, there will be another ready and willing to take their place. There is a real danger as we emerge out of pandemic lockdown that things will go back to the way they were. We are in danger of papering over the cracks again, and that would be a tragedy.

Now is the moment for us all to change working culture for the better forever.

Its decision time. Should we prioritise our wellbeing, or prioritise sending an email at 2am to impress the boss? Is it activity or productivity we value most? Overworking is a demonstration of our hours of activity. It is not a reflection of our productivity. When we are truly productive we work in a state of flow with a high degree of focus and engagement. We produce ‘right first time’ high quality work.

Eight hours of full work productivity trumps 14 hours of work activity any day of the week. Shorter, more productive working days benefit both employers and employees, encouraging both a healthy work life balance and personal wellbeing. Now is the moment for us all to change working culture for the better forever, while we still have the chance. The power is in our hands.

Juliet Adams