Comment: Managers should tackle long-hours culture

Kristy Dorsey. Picture: Robert Perry
Kristy Dorsey. Picture: Robert Perry
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IS THE “macho time” work era coming to an end? No more boasts (thinly veiled as complaints) about putting in 60 hours last week? The abolition of the business breakfast meeting?

It would certainly be nice to think so, but the signals are mixed. Flexible working is on the rise, with claims that nearly nine out of ten firms offer non-standard arrangements. Individual wellbeing is moving up the agenda, and there is growing evidence to support the intuitive premise that raising employee job satisfaction also boosts workplace performance.

Even some of the zealots in London’s Square Mile are taking heed. Stressed-out dads with high-ranking jobs are reportedly flocking to a new support group to redress their work-life imbalances, while a handful of small start-ups are seeking to cut back on the notoriously long hours seemingly required of City traders.

But many workers across the UK remain reticent about appearing anything less than wholly committed to their job for fear that this could harm their career and pay progression. A recent survey by YouGov shows 42 per cent of workers would feel uncomfortable asking their employer about working more flexibly. And a TUC report earlier this year found that British employees put in the longest hours in Europe, with more than five million people working an average of 7.5 hours of unpaid overtime every week.

Yet all of this extra activity seems to be yielding very little. The UK’s productivity gap with other G7 nations is at its largest since 1992, with the output of goods and services per hour from UK workers 17 percentage points below average.

There are many theories as to why the “productivity puzzle” persists. Earlier this month, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development said one key culprit has been a failure to boost the skills of UK managers.

Its report found that although management practices have changed during the past decade, there is little evidence of any underlying improvements. Approaches to maximise productivity and innovation – such as aligning workforce requirements with business strategy, or giving employees more autonomy – are “still not the norm”. This inflexibility has also allowed the workaholic culture to fester, with men particularly at risk.

A long-term study by research group Catalyst has looked at the techniques used by ambitious European professionals to advance their careers. Women get the best results by maintaining high visibility and attaching themselves to a good mentor. Men find the most success by working the longest hours.

Burning the midnight oil is no longer functioning on a macro level, but individuals will instinctively keep copying past behaviour until shown an alternative proven to work. Time for some senior managers to lead the way by taking up alternative working hours themselves. «