National Work Life Week: Can Working this Long and Hard be Sustainable for Business?

 

 

Blog by Laura Swiszczowski, Research Manager Opportunity Now

“One manager told his female employee to call him before she leaves work to let him know, and to text him before she went to sleep to check its ok.” This horrifying example came out of a Project 28-40 research focus group discussion on the long-hours culture prevalent in many UK businesses. This is one extreme end of the spectrum of course, with many more subtle examples at play for many women and men in our workplaces, but during National Work Life Week it raises the question – can working this hard be sustainable for business?

The simple answer is no – work related stress is costing the UK economy nearly £6.5 billion each year. Presenteeism – when employees come to work disengaged, tired, unmotivated and too stressed to work – is also on the rise, meaning businesses are likely to see costs rise if they don't take action.

There is some good news. We know from the Project 28-40 survey of 25,000 people that more agile working – such as working from home and flexibility around hours worked such as compressed hours, job sharing, part-time working – is helping with work life balance. The majority of men (69%) and women (74%) agree flexible working has enabled them to achieve the balance they want between career and life outside work. It’s not just parents we are talking about either – 1 in 10 of female respondents who do not have children use some form of flexible working.

Employees working flexibly are most likely to agree that they use their own initiative to carry out tasks not required of them.

And it’s not just good for employees, but business too. Flexible workers are more likely to give more back and go ‘the extra mile’, with other research showing those who regularly work from home are more likely to work long hours. Employees working flexibly are most likely to agree that they use their own initiative to carry out tasks not required of them. Opportunity Now’s Agile Award winner, Unilever, have approximately 90% of their office-based employees participating in Agile Working, with 86% reporting increased productivity and 80% reporting increased employment satisfaction since the change.

So why do we still have a long hours culture? One significant indicator is the fact that only 40% of respondents to the Project 28-40 survey said they organisation values flexible working as a way of working efficiently. Over a quarter also agreed that their organisation’s evaluation process values hours worked more than results perceived. This perception that you have to be visible in the office/on site to be seen as working, is compounded by the fact that flexible workers are seen as less committed and 64% of respondents agree that flexible workers are less likely to progress at the same rate as their peers, even if their input is similar!

He offered me a job – it was a big promotion… My hesitation was that I worked Fridays from home – I didn’t want to give it up – when I finished at 5pm I was home. He said ‘don’t be ridiculous, you can carry on doing that, take the job. We know you work really hard. If I hadn’t had that honest open relationship I might have said no.

- Project 28-40 Focus Group Participant

Agile working benefits business in many ways, but employers must acknowledge – and tackle – the tension that already exists between flexible and non-flexible workers; half of female respondents agreed with the statement ‘in my experience people who work flexibly are resented by their colleagues’.

In order to get the most out of all of their staff, managers and business need to learn to manage the distribution of work within teams and measure outputs rather than hours worked. Not only will this provide increased adaptability in today’s changing global economy, increased employee engagement and productivity, but as one respondent in our Inclusive Leadership  research told us, it improves progression:

“He offered me a job – it was a big promotion… My hesitation was that I worked Fridays from home – I didn’t want to give it up – when I finished at 5pm I was home. He said ‘don’t be ridiculous, you can carry on doing that, take the job.  We know you work really hard. If I hadn’t had that honest open relationship I might have said no.”