Why are so many people working late and what can we do about it?

The problem

In the last twenty years there has been a huge shake out of the number of people employed by organisations. The need to improve productivity and reduce costs has been obvious and probably necessary. However, in most organisations reducing the number of people employed has been much easier than reducing the work they do.

People fill the gap by giving much more time to the organisation than they contracted to do. This is good for the profits of the organisation the short term. Its longer-range consequences are entirely destructive.

Some consequences in work

Rest and relaxation are rational needs. If we do not have enough of them we will make more mistakes, miss opportunities and do our jobs poorly. We will have less enthusiasm for change and development. It will feel like another demand.

Pressure and stress, tighter deadlines often lead to people being insensitive to colleagues’ needs and particularly those of support staff. This leads to tensions between people, with no time to resolve them. This increases the stress reduces performance and accelerates the counterproductive spiral.

The pressure to produce output makes it very difficult to stop ‘doing’. Managers do not look at how people are working together or the systems they are using to see how to handle the situation better. Managers stop managing people.

Work becomes something to survive rather than a place to be creative. People get ill and have time off work. The ability of the organisation to innovate disappears.

Influence on families and the wider society

The influence on families can be catastrophic. Organisational behaviour causes a very large proportion of marital and relationship tensions. If relationships are to work, the partners must have time together and have the energy for that to be good quality time. It is not enough to be home late and be so tired that you immediately fall asleep. Partners find the other coming home late, tired, not taking holidays, travelling on business at weekends and working at home, unacceptable and end the relationship. It must be even more difficult for dual career couples.

Children from homes where their parents, or parent, are unable to listen to their children are more likely to be delinquent, underachieve or be unemployed than those with parents who can do so. Any parent will tell you that parenting is a most challenging and difficult job.

The financial costs of coping with relationship and family breakdown come back to organisations and individuals through the tax system. The social costs are an unhappy society.

Overworking creates unemployment. Many people are overworking with all the stresses described a large but fewer number are unemployed and suffering from lack of meaning and poverty. It is logical to share out the work and reduce the stress and stress related costs on both groups.

Why do we put up with it?

There are at least two groups of people who overwork. The first are ‘workaholics’. These people live for work. They are not responding to outside pressure. Workaholics have often had early experiences where the only way to get any love and approval was by working. They continue to seek this approval through their work. Of course they cannot get now what they needed in the past. Although these people are clearly victims of what happened to them, their behaviour can be very difficult at work. They make work for people around them and then pressure others to be as ‘committed’ as they are.

Most of the people who overwork are not ‘workaholics’. They are forced into this pattern of working. The economic climate makes them feel afraid of not conforming to the way others behave in the organisation or what people expect. It is hard to say that you want to be with your partner or child and you will not stay late tonight. The quality of the work falls because of the resentment (sometimes unconscious) about having to be there.

So what?

Organisations under short term pressure for results may decide to ignore these uncomfortable realities. However, when job prospects improve the best people will move to organisations that allow them to work to live rather than vice versa. This is already starting to happen. It will also become progressively harder to recruit good people into organisations that encourage overworking.

If society wants to take serious action about crime, it has to start thinking about how to encourage stable loving families. One way is to stop this destructive pattern of overwork.

What can be done?

Individuals can:

  • Decide whether overworking is good for themselves and their families.
  • If it is not, decide to stop it by:
    • Setting a time to leave and sticking to it
    • Looking at the work and eliminating low value items
    • Discussing the reasons for tasks and the standards and effort required. Many tasks are done in too much detail
    • Seeing ‘too much work to do in the time available’ as an organisational problem.

Teams can:

  • Spend time together away from the workplace to consider how they manage the work.

This can lead to:

  • Simplifying systems and processes to avoid wasting effort.
  • Having clearer priorities, thus making it acceptable not to do low priority work or do it less thoroughly.
  • Building more trust and communication between team members so they deal with stressful demands supportively.
  • Working with teams providing the work or receiving output to ensure the whole system works smoothly.
  • If, when the above is done, there is still more essential work that can be done in the time available, then work together to create a case to the organisation to provide more resources.

Organisations can:

  • Consider all the costs financial and otherwise of a culture of overwork. If they are too high then.
  • Set some policy guidelines

E.g. “In this organisation, except in a rare emergency, we expect employees to be able to achieve their targets in no more than X hours per week”. “Where this is difficult the solution will usually found through discussion with your colleagues and manager and may include additional training. Taking work home routinely is unacceptable.”

  • Provide an incentive for their clients to give reasonable notice of what is required. Refuse to accept very short deadlines (rushed work by pressured people is rarely first class work).

Society can:

  • Redefine individual success as a fruitful balanced, happy life not only personal wealth or power
  • We could start to do this through public debate and through some model examples
  • Provide a forum for discussion and sharing about the sort of society and culture we want to be. The forum would be truly representative of all the groups in society.
  • Evaluate organisations on the quality of and benefits of their activities, including the quality of life of their employees and the benefits they ascribe to working for the organisation.  

If you would like help using this idea, or have any comments or questions please contact me. Thanks, Nick