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Live to work or work to live?

Can working too hard cause us to get less done? Is a work-life balance possible? And is there an alternative to running the rat race every day that will leave us both professionally and personally fulfilled? David Adams investigates

For most of us, work is neither a means to an end nor the defining feature of our personality. It’s something in between; a source of income, but also, hopefully, of enjoyment and satisfaction. Yet, there’s no denying that balance with the rest of our lives is hard to achieve: work often dominates our days, leaving little time or energy for family or leisure. We know what happens when that trend goes too far: 15.4 million working days were lost to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in the UK during 2017/2018 – 57% of all working days lost due to ill health, according to the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Labour Force Survey.

So are we all working too hard? Should we try to change that, for the good of our health, our relationships, our employers and society? Work has always been tough: 150 years ago, the average non-agricultural working week in the UK was around 60 hours; and closer to 70 in France, Sweden and Germany. Those figures have been falling, at varying rates, ever since. By 1990 the UK working week was 42.4 hours; and below 40 in France, Germany, Sweden and the US, according to a 2007 University of Montreal/LSE study.

By the end of 2018, the average UK working week was just over 37 hours, notes the ONS. But averages are misleading: there are many people in menial or casual work doing long, hard, boring hours for low pay; there will also be those contracted to work nine to five, or thereabouts, Monday to Friday, who also work for 30 to 60 minutes during their commute, and spend an hour or two working at home in the evenings or at the weekend, including time spent using work email during leisure time. Working hours averages don’t tell us how hard people are working, but the UK Skills and Employment Survey (SES), conducted every five years by Cardiff University, attempts to do so.

The most recent survey, SES 2017, shows that almost half the employed UK workforce (46%) strongly agreed that they worked “very hard”, whereas in 1992 only 32% said this was the case. The number of respondents saying they had to work at “very high speed” most or all of the time, had to meet very tight deadlines, or often or always returned home from work exhausted have all also increased over the years. Professor Alan Felstead, of the school of social sciences at Cardiff University, says comparisons with research produced in other countries suggest the UK is close to the top of a league table of countries where employees work particularly intensively, alongside Ukraine, Ireland, Slovakia and Spain, while nations where work appears to be less intensive include the Nordic countries.

Some jobs require greater work intensity than others: the SES figures suggest nursing and teaching are among them – but professional services jobs, including accountancy, are not far behind. Research commissioned by the Chartered Accountants’ Benevolent Association (CABA) reveals that more than one in five ICAEW members (22%) work late every day, more than half (54%) work late at least once a week, 47% take work home, and 22% think about quitting at least once every week.

“That stretch of the working day into time at home and family time is a growing issue,” says CABA services director Kelly Feehan. “There’s that expectation that people are always on.” Technology has also driven digital disruption and automation, squeezing profit margins in many sectors, encouraging businesses to keep headcount low. The cumulative effects of these trends means many workers feel their lives are out of control; that they are “bounced along like a pinball from the moment their feet hit the ground in the morning until they get back to bed”, as described by entrepreneur and business coach Penny Power.

This environment also encourages presenteeism – when people stay in the office beyond their contracted hours – to prove they are working hard. Presenteeism discourages workers from seeking to work flexibly, although it can also exist in digital form, with workers staying signed into email and other work systems after they should have logged out. Presenteeism is not good for performance in work and has adverse effects on relationships with partners and children.

These issues create operational and financial problems for employers and society in general, as recorded in the ONS Labour Force Survey statistics previously mentioned; and in research commissioned from Deloitte for the 2017 Stevenson/ Farmer review of mental health and employers. It suggests poor mental health in the workplace costs UK businesses between £33bn and £42bn a year; and costs the UK government between £24bn and £27bn, including NHS and benefit costs and reduced tax revenue.

The total annual cost to the UK economy was calculated at between £74bn and £99bn. Some employers are taking positive steps to address these problems, such as putting measures in place to reduce presenteeism and remove any implied link between it and promotion. CABA reports increased interest from employers in courses designed to support overworked staff and improve management awareness and handling of related issues. Non-exploitative use of flexible working can also help. The government has put some weight behind the Flexible Working Taskforce, which published guidance for organisations seeking to extend and improve the way they use flexible working in January 2019. Its recommendations include advertising all jobs as flexible, regardless of seniority level.

Carys Roberts, chief economist at the Institute for Public Policy and Research, suggests this would make an employer more attractive to a wider range of potential candidates and could also help to close the gender pay gap. Research by Felstead and his colleagues also suggests that employees doing some or all of their work remotely actually work harder than those in the workplace. That’s good for employers but hardly solves the problem of overwork. But home workers seem to be happier: they are also more likely to tell researchers they would not move to another organisation in return for higher pay. Roberts also suggests employers reduce use of unpaid overtime, including active interventions to cut the amount of time staff spend using work email outside working hours. In 2016, the French government introduced a legal right for individuals to avoid using work email outside working hours.

Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at the Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, is against such blanket bans, as they may make flexible working more difficult. But he approves of the fact that an email sent to a member of staff at car manufacturer Daimler who is on holiday will usually receive an automated response explaining that the email will be deleted and the sender should either email another colleague or resend the email once the intended recipient returns from holiday.

Individuals in client-facing roles may feel they have less leeway to remove themselves from being contacted outside normal working hours – the client must always come first. “But many of your clients will have these policies in place themselves,” Cooper counters. “Yes, there are times when you will have to work long hours, but in my view you have to train the client to understand that if it’s not absolutely necessary to deal with something on Saturday, it can wait until Monday.” Another idea that could boost productivity and reduce strain on workers is a four-day working week. In February 2019, New Zealand financial services company Perpetual Guardian announced that its switch to a fourday week had increased productivity, reduced stress and increased commitment to the company among its 240 staff.

Clearly, such a change would be easier for some employers than for others, but it is worth noting that almost three-quarters of accounting professionals (72%) said they thought a four-day working week would be beneficial when they were surveyed by CV Library in 2017. Much also depends on management. At present, suggests Cooper, problems may be exacerbated by bad management. “When you have people in command and control roles with low emotional intelligence, that management style is damaging,” he says.

“Interpersonal skills are fundamental to effective management. “If managers don’t have those skills, they should be trained. Maybe making someone a partner in an accountancy or legal firm should be conditional on them completing this sort of training.” Finally, there has been much discussion in recent years about younger employees – millennials – having different expectations of employers and making demands of them that older generations of workers would never have dreamed of when they first entered the workplace.

Jonathan Swan, policy and research officer at the charity Working Families, says this is not just an issue for blue chip companies trying to attract the best graduates; it can affect all kinds of employers. He says: “Employers are asking, ‘what do I need to do to make work more attractive?’ The answer is to have adult-to-adult conversations about how jobs are done, to create different ways of working that might suit you both better.”

Not all employers will be open to such a discussion. “Some older clients would say, well, it was hard work when I was younger, it’s always been hard work, that’s the nature of the profession – get on with it,” says Feehan. Clearly, in some companies, the influence of younger workers will help employers create cultures that provide validation and support for staff, to ensure they are not overwhelmed by work, hopefully helping to boost individual and organisational performance. Elsewhere, change will take longer and more workers will need to weigh up the sacrifices they are asked to make against the potential rewards of advancement within that organisation or profession. “I do think there is a shift towards more employers thinking, we need to care – we need to notice there’s a person here,” says Power.

Cooper believes such a change is essential. “The notion that working long hours is a badge of courage should be banished,” he says. “If you consistently do that it’s bad for your health, your performance and your family.” Above all, says Felstead, employers must not see employees as “a resource to be squeezed”. “We should be treating them as a resource to be nurtured and treasured; and trusted,” he says.

PwC embraces flexibility

In August 2018, PwC launched the Flexible Talent Network, designed to offer new recruits and existing staff the opportunity to work for the firm without having to commit to a full-time contract and standard working hours. The network is well-used, according to Sarah Churchman, head of inclusion, community and wellbeing at PwC UK, although staff working in consulting are more likely to use it than those in audit. The network is just one aspect of an ongoing cultural transformation within PwC, designed to make staff feel “empowered and trusted”, says Churchman.

Another is the opportunity to use “everyday flexibility”: to organise when, where and how they are going to work. PwC also uses a “technology responsibility” policy. “We encourage people to switch off email if they are taking holiday and to have zones that are free of work devices,” says Churchman. She also highlights the influence of younger employees on the changing shape of working practices within the firm. “They’re having a big influence through their sheer numbers,” she says. “We’re not going to change them – they’re going to change us.”

Originally published in Economia on 5 June 2019.