Blog: Do we really need long work hours?

Strategic HR

Do we really need long work hours?

The German labour ministry's ban on outside of work hours sends a strong signal to the global business community
Do we really need long work hours?

A news report in The Telegraph caught my attention and indeed the attention of everyone I forwarded the link to. It says that the labour ministry of Germany has implemented a ban on out of office hours working within the German soil. The ban prevents managers to e-mail or call team members for any reason outside of working hours unless the manager can justify that there was a business-disruptive necessity.

Viewed through any lens, the move can at the least be called “bold,” with many terming it with emphatic adjectives such as “idiotic,” “stupendous,” and “audacious.” While the pro employee lobby globally has welcomed the news with loud cheers and excited hoots, many sceptics would term this move as “out-of-age” and “economically regressive.” Which lobby do I belong to? It doesn’t matter, does it?

A time to reflect

Last week’s human capital headlines were rife with the news about the death of Moritz Erhardt, an intern with the investment banking division of Bank of America. He was a 21-year-old whose epileptic condition was amplified to fatal levels owing to eight “all-nighters” in office. Post Erhardt’s tragic death, many news reports started emerging from several quarters and from all corners of the globe about how such “all-nighters” are a part and parcel of an investment banker’s professional existence.

Many work secrets of the investment banking world have since emerged, including the most famous “magic roundabout.” The magic roundabout is a practice of sending an employee home in a taxi which waits until the person showers and gets fresh to be taken back to office immediately. Talent management experts and behavioural psychologists term these practices as “inhuman” and “counter-productive” both for an individual and for an organisation. While it is for time to tell how the legislation in Germany pans out on the ground for business corporations, it does provide a basis for employers to step back and evaluate if burning employees out is really the right way to go.

My gut says that any management practice that is detrimental to the well-being and happiness of an employee will come back to bite an employer in the long-term though it may be profitable in the immediate-term. Detractors of the employee-rights lobby feel that in a hyper-competitive business environment, rigid work hours will take an economy back by several years, by restricting the ability of business entities to produce “more” economic value. But then again, it is a question of how one views “more.” Many believe that “more” in the short-term means “less” in the long-term.

I thought about an analogy about the argument while driving to work this morning. When a car zipped past me on a bumpy road and jumped a red light, its driver was able to beat some traffic and gain more ground in less time. At the same time, he was incurring the economic cost of greater risk exposure, car depreciation and higher fuel expenditure. These economic costs in the long-term will turn out to be much more expensive that his short-term objective of getting to his destination early. His luck with escaping dangerous accidents might run out, his car tyres may need to be replaced sooner and his monthly fuel bill will be more than what one would usually incur for that distance.

An organisation with the reputation of long working hours is less likely to enjoy a superior employer brand image compared to one that does not. In the last two years, research studies from the World Health Organisation have emerged revealing the health effects to the first generation globalised workforce that was exposed to 15-20 years of hyper-competitive business environment. Chronic diseases are now widespread in this generation and some research studies even suggest that organisations stand to potentially lose up to 20 per cent of their annual revenue through an ailing workforce. Added to that, if other factors such as disengagement and disloyalty are included, is that not too high a price to pay for any short-term gain?

Empathy is the key

While there are no magic or gold-standard practices on how to improve engagement and the overall health of employees, having the empathy and respect for the time of co-workers can help a great deal in making workplaces more efficient. A manager who values time outside of work should empathize with the assumption that direct reports will not appreciate calls and e-mails during out of work hours. The onus of altering the working culture of an organisation lies greatly on the shoulders of managers and senior leaders. Here are two warning signs that any manager or senior leader should always look for in his/her team.

  1. Acknowledge the problem: Many managers consider after hours working as a sign of engagement and drive among team members, often ignoring that many employees stay back to “project” that image. There are two risks to an organisation that encourages a manager who compels his team to stay back in office after hours. First of all, team members will become disengaged or burn out in the long run. Second, professionals tend to adopt management styles of erstwhile managers and an organisation runs the risk of making more such monstrous future managers if they allow one to flourish. It is in the best interest of the senior leadership and management of an organisation to acknowledge it as a problem and make earnest efforts to resolve it. Many progressive companies have put together a process where an employee has to get a formal manager’s approval during any time when s/he has to stay back in office. Additionally, such managers are pulled up by the organisation’s HR and senior leadership if there is a rising trend of team members working outside office hours.
  2. Be on the watch for burnout: Often while aiming for results, managers tend to turn a deaf ear to employee complaints and resistance about after office work hours or simply tend to ignore them. Subjecting team members to prolonged long hours and erratic status update schedules can burn them out. Before any after work call or e-mail, a manager should step back and ask, “can it not wait until tomorrow morning?”

Long-term business success depends on a number of factors, including the external business environment, the economic market conditions and the evolution of demand. It is therefore important for an organisation to recognise the importance of having an engaged and healthy workforce where most of the outcomes are a result of discretionary effort and solicitous action. Without considerate leadership and management’s commitment to employee well-being, an organisation may soon realise that it’s on a path to a competitive abyss.

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Topics: Strategic HR, Employee Engagement

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