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Tom Marsden

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Death by overwork: quantity at the expense of quality


From subsidised gym memberships to ‘stop smoking’ programmes, businesses are increasingly taking responsibility for the wellbeing of their staff. However, one aspect of employee health has taken a step backwards: mental and physical exhaustion caused by overworking.

Sleep famine has simply become an intrinsic part of daily life for many workers, both white collar and blue. We’ve all seen the commitments to ‘health and wellbeing’ on the values section of company career sites. However, it’s rather duplicitous to bemoan the practice of smoking whilst at the same time maintain a heavily congested working schedule for your staff.

Extreme cases

There are extreme warning signs in certain countries or industries. According to a 2017 report on ‘Karoshi’ in Japan, a term that literally means ‘death by overwork’, 20% of Japanese workers were found to be working at least 80 hours of overtime a month.

These long hours have been shown to be a contributing factor in some employees suffering heart failure, strokes, and even suicide.

Stresses regarding overwork in the NHS in the UK receive media coverage weekly. We constantly see headlines that nurses are “at breaking point”. In fact, one in 10 NHS nurses in England quit each year. Needless to say, our health service is suffering from a clear work culture challenge.

A possible cure?

On the other end of the spectrum we have Sweden, where numerous organisations are trialling a six-hour working day in a bid to create a healthier and more productive workforce.

In a care home in Gothenburg, 70 assistant nurses had their days shortened; the benefits of this reduction quickly became apparent. Not only was less sick leave taken and perceived health improved, there was an uptick in productivity, with staff organising 85% more activities for their patients.

Do we need to avoid draconian working hours? Yes. Will every company and organisation benefit from a six-hour working day? No.

Further, the Dutch group Buurtzog have benefitted from an increase in patient care outcomes and better employee wellbeing and engagement. They indicate a significant factor has been giving greater autonomy for teams to decide on what they do each day.

Have we found a panacea for all of our working woes? Unfortunately, the issue is not as simple as that. Whilst a shortened working day may be appropriate for those working in some professions it’s not something that necessarily applies as a general rule.

There have been a myriad of private sector firms who have tested this concept in Sweden. Some of these companies – which encompass the advertising, telecoms, consulting and technology sectors – have certainly reported calmer staff and a reduction in sick days. Plenty however quickly ditched their programmes.

Numerous managers saw levels of stress increasing for their employees, many of whom were attempting to fit eight hours of work into six.

What now?

Do we need to avoid draconian working hours? Yes. Will every company and organisation benefit from a six-hour working day? No.

Working schedules need to be as diverse as the companies and people that comprise them. Whilst some teams would benefit from a shortened working day, others may benefit from a flexible working schedule.

Whilst we all would like a ping pong table in the break room, we yearn to work in a truly collaborative environment.

A recent study by management consulting firm Aon Hewitt found that 37% of workers regard a flexible work environment as a key differentiator when considering employers. The research is clear: workers who have control over their schedule report lower levels of stress, burnout and higher job satisfaction.

Stop working longer, start working smarter

Establishing the link between job satisfaction and productivity is the easy part. Creating a productive working environment is harder. This is where focusing on teams rather than individuals comes in.

Whilst we all would like a ping pong table in the break room, we yearn to work in a truly collaborative environment. We may appreciate the opportunity to work on our summer bod with a free gym membership, but we long to work towards a meaningful purpose.

In fact, a shared purpose is the lifeblood of a team, the very definition of it. At Saberr, our mission is simple: we want to help teams work well together. At Netflix, their mission is to become the best global entertainment distribution service, and at SpaceX, they aim to make life multi-planetary by advancing rocket technology.

Define your purpose together, and develop a set of goals to steer towards. Elon Musk is quite open in that he expects hard work and long hours to achieve this mission. It’s a clear contract for those that believe in the mission.

The next step would be to ‘tool up’. There are numerous apps out there from messaging platforms to coaching tools. So make a habit of team reflection, put together clear goals, regularly check-in with your employees and make sure you devote that all important resource to them: time.

If we want our workforce to remain happy, motivated and productive, we need to remember it’s a continuous process of coaching and learning.

While it’s not rocket science, creating a collaborative and fulfilled workforce takes time and dedication, but small steps in the right direction can make a big impact.  

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