LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 16: Office workers for IPC Media work into the night in the Blue Fin Building in Southwark on January 16, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
New nighthawks: office workers paying scant regard to research that suggests overworking hampers productivity © Getty

Grant Freeland began to worry about the amount of hours he put in at work when a number of talented consultants in his Boston office left. They were burnt out and desperate to have a life outside work. Serendipitously, he was contacted by Leslie Perlow, professor of leadership in organisational behaviour at Harvard Business School. She had a question that he too wanted answering: could consultants, at the beck and call of clients’ demands, ever have anything approaching a work-life balance?

For a year she studied his team at Boston Consulting Group and came back with the verdict that the biggest problem was a lack of predictability. “People could never make a plan because of client demands,” recalls Mr Freeland. So they came up with a scheme called “predictable time off”, or PTO. It gave employees an evening or a day between Mondays and Thursdays when they would not be contacted and could switch off the phone and email.

“Most efforts fail if we aim for work-life balance as it’s superficial unless you change how work is done”, says Mr Freeland, senior partner, today responsible for BCG’s people and organisation practice. It was a tricky sell, he reflects. “Some thought long hours were a rite of passage; others didn’t think we needed PTO.”

The most important aspect of the initiative, which was rolled out from 2008, was that it made people talk and plan. “It forced teams to prioritise. We found that teams that had predictable time off worked fewer hours overall and worked smarter. It had forced them to discuss behavioural norms,” he says. “If you promote people who work 20 hours a day, then people think to get a promotion you need to work 20 hours.”

Among those teams that adopt PTO, the retention rate has increased, he insists. On average he thinks he works 60 hours a week. However, if doing due diligence on a company, “all bets are off”, he says: people have to put the hours in.

Despite BCG’s ambitions to change working practices, the most common gripe on Glassdoor, a website that allows former employees to post reviews of companies and jobs, is long hours. As one reviewer writes: “There is a powerfully-entrenched long-hours culture . . . PTO sessions really just turn into grumbling sessions that don’t change expectations.”

Yet BCG is at least trying to tackle the issue, unusual in a sector that lionises long hours. Consultancy is far from unique: many bankers, lawyers and medics see excessive hours as a badge of honour. Alexandra Michel, a banker turned academic, found that even when bankers moved to other sectors for a better work-life balance, they had internalised banking’s ethos to such an extent that they increased the working day for their new colleagues.

In the technology industry, coders work around the clock. Moreover, the industry’s bias towards youth, says Jim Hart, chief executive of Senn Delaney, an organisational-culture consulting firm, “encourages people to think they can work hard while they are fit and young, and make money”.

While there is evidence that overworking hampers productivity – for example, a Stanford University study that showed that those doing 60-hour weeks produced less high-quality code than those doing 40 hours – there is also research by the Graduate School of Management, University of California, Davis, that shows the more one is seen at the office, the more others perceive you as “dependable” and “committed”.

A recent report by Oxford university identified the emergence of a new “super” working class of wealthy professionals who ratchet up hours in the office. The study says the best-educated used to work much shorter hours, yet by the start of the 21st century they were working the longest hours.

Some companies are experimenting with curbing the use of technologies that have blurred the lines between home and office. Volkswagen, the German carmaker, prevents emails being issued from 30 minutes after the end of an employee’s shift until the server is switched on the next day, issuing emails again half an hour before the new working day begins. Daimler recently announced that employees can opt to have any emails they receive while they are on holiday automatically deleted.

Dr Michel believes that even bankers can curb long hours if their employers give feedback on skills and abilities that decline with overwork, such as judgment and creativity. “Many firms interview clients informally about the creativity of a team’s solutions. This information is passed along to employees on a weekly basis and allows them to witness first-hand the correlation between overwork and the dimensions that are critical to high performance.” Such feedback, she says, is more effective than merely telling people what can happen when they work too much or rules about not working on weekends.

Almuth McDowall, an occupational psychologist who specialises in work-life balance, says it is possible to change a culture. She has worked with some British tech companies that peg bonuses to sensible hours. If a developer achieves his or her goal within prescribed hours, they are rewarded financially but not if they work excessively.

She believes that we are not good at recognising “what good work looks like . . . [working] long hours has become a proxy for good performance”. Some banks have attempted to curb the long hours for junior employees by doing more than giving clear days off. They are also engaging the juniors with meaningful work to display their ability, so they do not feel they can only prove their worth by slogging away until dawn.

Moreover, tasks need to be realistic and allocated coherently. “We need to see duty of care as part of the role of manager,” says Ms McDowall. “And sensible hours needs to be championed by middle managers as well as senior leaders.”

Don Serratt, who left banking to start a company treating behavioural health problems, says blanket policies do not work. “It has to start with the individual. Some people have more stamina and get energy from working more than others. Others continue to work hard in spite of the negative consequences.” The warning signs, he says, are if you are neglecting your health, missing your children growing up or ignoring your partner.

Google’s long-term study of working cultures has revealed that some people are better equipped than others to leave the office behind at the end of the working day. Laszlo Bock, who heads the tech company’s people operations division, describes two types of working personality: “segmentors”, a minority who are able to draw a psychological line between work stress and home, and “integrators”, for whom work lurks constantly in their heads, leading them to check their emails constantly.

As Mr Serratt acknowledges: ultimately, knowing when to call it a day comes down to self-awareness.

Further reading: The role of class and gender in the long hours culture

Some experts have posited class and gender dimensions to the valorisation of long hours, writes Emma Jacobs. Extreme working becomes a way of denoting professional status in the 1980s, which was a time when blue-collar jobs were in decline.

As women entered the workforce in greater numbers, working late meant that those juggling childcare responsibilities were kept out of positions of power. Claudia Goldin, the Harvard economist, wrote in a recent paper that the “gender gap in pay would be considerably reduced and might vanish altogether if firms did not have an incentive to disproportionately reward individuals who laboured long hours”.

Brigid Schulte, the author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, believes there might be additional reasons behind the long-hours culture. “Many white- collar jobs are challenging, stimulating and even enjoyable – some are even what the Greek philosophers would have considered ‘leisure’ – so, in part, we actually like what we do.”

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