‘Work and life’ ---> ‘Work-life balance’ ---> ‘Work-life-integration’ ---> ‘Work-life-(fill-in-the-blank)’
Such has been the evolution of work and life. From independent individual entities, the concepts have become so intertwined that it has become difficult to make a clear distinction between the two. This integration has made employees (over)working late hours in office or at home, and even on vacations, a very common sight.
The working population in different parts of the world has become a victim of overwork. The problem is the biggest in India – the average work hours per week of millennials in the organized sector have been recorded to be 52 – more than any other country in the world. To put this in perspective – according to the Factories Act, 1948, no adult can work for more than 9 hours a day or 48 hours in a week! Tales have already been written on the harm that is caused by overwork.
It doesn’t matter what we call ‘work-life balance’ because there is no such thing. Call it work-life harmony, integration, flexibility, flow, work-life fill-in-the-blank - Jae Ellard, Founder, Simple Intentions.
Given all the negative aspects of overwork,
Why is it that people really overwork?
The popular opinion is that employees’ hand is forced by the business because of which they overwork. Many will remember the feature from New York Times in 2015 revealing the workaholic culture at Amazon. The world’s leading retailer’s culture of overwork was reported as such that motherhood was considered a liability. An expecting mother, Ms. Williamson was told by her boss that “raising children would most likely prevent her from success at a higher level because of the long hours required”. The boss suggested her to find a less demanding job in the company. Another employee, Molly Jay was told she was “a problem” by her boss because she cut back on working on weekends and nights to take care of her cancer-ridden father. Hence, the accountability for overworked employees can be given to the business as it asks its people to do it, and if they don’t, then they face repercussions – similar to what Ms. Jay and Ms. Williamson faced – leaving the company.
Although, a business tyrannously forcing its employees to overwork is not the only reason people overwork. People aren’t always asked to overwork; there are two other reasons that people work much more than is required:
In more cases than not, it are the macro-forces driving work after a regular 9-6. It can either be the case of the work being too much to be completed in the stipulated office hours, or a case of inefficiency and ineffectiveness in employees; making them stay late with their eyes in front if a desktop, or at home with laptops sitting on them. A lot of external forces can be responsible for overwork – a very small team incapacitated to handle the quantum of work; poor delegation skills of project manager overloading a few and a few under-worked; under-performing team members or disguised victims; ‘urgent’ client requirements leaving people no choice, et al.
It also comes down to an individual’s choice to overwork. Putting in extra hours at work and being available 24x7 is often considered a sign of high performance. Time happens to be a very easy measure of productivity. Managers can be tempted to judge an individual’s productivity by the number of hours (s)he puts in at work – the result of such perception is what reflects in performance sheets. Combine reward for performance with recognition, and employees get instant incentive for working longer, if not always extra. An interesting theory also places ‘habit’ as the reason behind people deciding to work longer. Work, no matter how stressful, can sometimes be less stressful than personal lives for some people; and it is these people who become habitual of working extra and longer, and look towards work as an escape from their personal lives.
Even in the infamous Amazon work culture feature on the New York Times, commentaries from a big faction of Amazonians and inhabitants of the Silicon Valley emerged, stating that it is the thrill of doing something meaningful and interesting which motivates them to work extra. It isn’t by force, but by choice that people choose to overwork. So much so, that buffets of 3-course meals have started to get replaced by bottles of some milliliters of protein drinks. The reason – save time and be efficient. But just because people overwork willingly, it doesn’t mean it is good for them.
Just because someone does something willingly doesn't mean that it's good for them.”- Fortune
If one is to look at the three factors closely, they are all closely intertwined, and barring a few people, everyone could fit any category (‘Asked by business’, ‘Driven by macro forces’, and ‘Making individual choices’). An employee could argue that taking a client call after office isn’t really being driven by macro forces if it happens all too frequently, and it is infact a business-ask, for the business hasn’t created regulations wherein client calls after office hours are not allowed. Another employee may argue that it is assumed the (s)he is working extra willingly, but she doesn’t really have a choice if the rest of the company works extra, and if she chooses not to, she may be ousted. So it isn’t an individual choice, but something being driven by forces around her; forces which the business can control; a force that has come to be known as company culture.
‘High performance’ culture has, for long, been duped as ‘available 24x7’ culture. Knowledge workers work extra now. The best-paid workers are twice as likely to work longer compared to earlier. As James Surowiecki puts it in the New Yorker, “Overwork has become a credential of prosperity”.
Overwork has become a credential of prosperity' - James Surowiecki in New Yorker.
But all this (over)work – whatever be the reasons behind it (driven by macro forces, or come down to an individual’s choice), is not healthy. A history of studies suggest that burnout can lead to several health problems, such as depression, loneliness, alcoholism, impaired memory and heart diseases. It affects the well-being of the employee and the bottom line of the business. Overworking is infact counterintuitive to productivity, besides the health issues it directly leads to. In the words of Arianna Huffington, a board member at Uber, “Uber is a data-driven company, and the data shows unequivocally that when you work longer, you are not working smarter.” It may well be the time to reverse the life-cycle of the entities work and life, and make them independent of each other again.