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Blaire Palmer

Read more about Blaire Palmer

Success in a recession: Elbow grease and hard slog


Organisations with employees who work very hard are usually the ones which succeed. However, in a recession, how do you get people to put in the long hours without losing their commitment and loyalty? Blaire Palmer explains how to communicate the need for hard work effectively.

In the last 20 years, the number of people working 50 hours or more a week has dramatically increased. One American survey found that between 1980 and 2001 the number of college-educated men putting in a 50-hour week had risen from 22.2% to 30.5%. Plus, 62% of high-earning individuals work more than 50 hours a week and it is not uncommon to find professional people working 60 or even 70 hours a week as a norm.
In fact, this kind of work has become a status symbol and attracted a label, coined by employment experts Sylvia Hewlett and Carolyn Buck Luce – ‘Extreme Jobs’. If you work more than 60 hours a week, are a high earner and hold a position with at least five of the following characteristics, you are in an Extreme Job:
  • Unpredictable flow of work
  • Fast-paced work under tight deadlines
  • Inordinate scope of responsibility that amounts to more than one job
  • Work-related events outside regular work hours
  • Availability to clients 24/7
  • Responsibility for profit and loss
  • Responsibility for mentoring and recruiting
  • Large amount of travel
  • Large number of direct reports
  • Physical presence at workplace at least 10 hours a day.
Hewlett and Buck Luce found that 21% of high earners meet these Extreme Job criteria. In those who work in global companies, the figure is 45%. Most Extreme Jobholders say that their job interferes with their ability to maintain a home, their relationship with their children, their relationship with their partner and even their sex life.
On the other hand, 66% of people who hold an Extreme Job say that they love it. In global companies, the number is 76%. These are people on a mission. They are passionate about what they do and see their long hours as a badge of honour. The vast majority say their hours are self-inflicted – they do it because they want to.
"Very few successful individuals get their lucky break without putting in the hours, honing their skills and proving their worth."
In researching my new book, ‘hard graft’ emerged as one of the key ingredients for success. Very few successful individuals get their lucky break without putting in the hours, honing their skills and proving their worth. And very few keep their position when they take their foot off the gas (unless they have created a team who can lead in their absence).
What’s more, most of these individuals do not consider they paid a price. They may have a divorce or two behind them, weak family relationships and few friends. But, they don’t see this as a sacrifice. They believe they have made choices. They rarely have regrets.

Long working hours

But in a recession, working hours often increase whether staff want to spend more hours in the office or not. Fewer staff and a greater imperative to make sales, cut costs and respond fast means there is often simply too much to achieve between 9 and 5 (or even between 8 and 6). People are also keen to show they are indispensable in the hope they will be kept on if job losses occur, and an obvious way to demonstrate this is to be in the office first in the morning and last at night.
In these cases the pressure of long hours and the impact on life outside of work can be significant. And it isn’t a price these individuals have chosen to pay.
HR has a responsibility to take care of the wellbeing of staff (or at least to ensure that the company culture has an awareness of staff wellbeing). The success of the business (and therefore its ability to provide employment in future) may rely on people working much harder right now. So how do you ensure people still put in the hours without feeling resentful or even damaged?


At the risk of repeating myself, this is not the time to be withholding information. When people understand the factors influencing decisions around staff cuts, changes in working conditions and workloads, and can consider the options for themselves they often come to the same conclusions as the decision makers, that the way to stay in business is to work harder for a while. Most adults have to balance the books at home and they know that, occasionally, sacrifices have to be made when times are tough. Trusting staff with information shows that they are not being taken for granted or being badly treated, just being asked to muck in for the good of all.

Emotional support

When people spend more time at work and less time at home, some of their needs do not get met. The need to be loved and appreciated, to be oneself, to relax, to have fun, to complain, to be childish, to vegetate…When our needs are not met we become ‘needy’ (surprisingly). Neediness is not a good mindset for being professional under pressure.
"Ensure that reward systems recognise results, not attendance."
Extra facilities which enable staff to get some of their needs met can help them remain committed and focused without sacrificing their needs. Longer canteen opening times with improved food, relaxation areas where people can take a break before getting back to work, the opportunity to invite family and friends to work events, more avenues to make suggestions, give feedback, share ideas, even yoga and relaxation classes can demonstrate to employees that their hard work is appreciated.
Measure results not presence
A long hours culture can become infectious. But long hours don’t always mean effective hours. Ensure that reward systems recognise results, not attendance. In addition make sure that prevention is rewarded rather than firefighting. When people want to make a name for themselves they can create high-profile situations which require working long hours to resolve them. When the emergency is averted, the very same individual who created the crisis receives a pat on the back for a job well done. Lower-profile individuals who avoid mishaps and therefore are able to work shorter hours get less attention. But when levels of stress are already high, it is these individuals your organisation needs. Don’t be distracted by fire-starters.

Blaire Palmer is an executive coach and author. Her new book, ‘The Recipe for Success – What Successful People Do and How You Can Do It Too’, is out now (published by A&C Black) and available from good bookshops and For more information on her work, visit her website at or her blog at   

2 Responses

  1. Help staff perform at their best
    This is a great piece Blaire and I really agree with the sentiments on businesses setting up initiatives that enable staff to take care of their personal needs. If staff are expected to give more of their time and effort to achieve great results for the business, the business should be prepared to guarantee staff are looked after, particularly with regard to their health and wellbeing. Staff with high energy and a positive outlook can make all the difference to an organisation, particularly at the moment.
    Jeff Archer


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