Feel like you’re working too hard? Chances are you are..
Many go way beyond the call of duty in terms of hours worked, with negative ramifications for employer as well as employee
People used to scoff at the idea of working 9 to 5. Now we can but dream of it. Working within such tight time limitations and with little sense of autonomy might have meant that many of us were bored senseless by our jobs, but at least when we clocked out at the end of the day, our time was our own.
Back in the day, no one checked their emails at 11pm or worked on a pointless PowerPoint presentation throughout the weekend. You just turned up on time, kept your head down and left when the whistle blew. Sure, people might have felt frustrated at times, but at least there was a clear demarcation to signal when they were off duty.
A whole raft of recent studies has shown this is no longer the case. It seems that as well as working way past the hours we are contracted to do, many of us now give up our lunch breaks, weekends and even holidays for our careers.
A 2014 survey by the recruitment firm Morgan McKinley found that 70 per cent of Irish professionals work longer than contracted, with more than one-third – about 35 per cent – of these individuals working at least an extra hour every day.
According to the study, one-sixth of all employees work an extra three months a year more than expected, with many respondents saying they felt obliged to put in the additional hours by their employers.
Karen O’Flaherty, chief operations officer with Morgan McKinley Ireland, says that, like it or loathe it, we’re witnessing the death of the 9 to 5.
“The days of turning up to work at 9 and leaving at 5 on the dot are gone,” she says. “People generally don’t feel as compelled to be at their desk at the same time each morning, and in many cases it’s simply not possible given other commitments they might have.
“These days many people work later and so they may start later too, or at the very least begin their working day at home.”
O’Flaherty attributes the changes in working patterns in part to the fact that so many companies now operate across different time zones. This has led to an increased need for flexibility from employees, with many on call at different times in the day and night.
She stresses this isn’t necessarily a bad thing for staff who, she says, have learned how to “work hard and switch off”. She adds that employers are also responding by offering greater flexibility to employees who hope to achieve a greater work-life balance.
O’Flaherty also notes that, according to the Morgan McKinley study, three-fifths of those surveyed claimed to be more productive when they work past their contracted hours.
This all sounds great in theory, but not every organisation is so relaxed about when employees do their work.
“Some companies still insist that their employees fulfil certain core hours, regardless of whether it is practical or not,” says Dr Carol Linehan, a lecturer on the MA in work and organisational psychology course at University College Cork.
“It seems that in Ireland at least a lot of people are still employed on fairly traditional 9 to 5 contracts,” she says. “But whatever their terms and conditions are, they’re not necessarily working solely within this timeframe.”
“On paper it seems like most people are still employed in much the way they were, but in reality the situation has totally changed,” Linehan says. “The problem is that many workers are caught having to do their regular hours, and then do extra to cover the fact that they can’t do everything in the set time.”
It’s not just that employees are working overtime without extra pay. A survey published earlier this month by One4all showed that many of us don’t even take proper breaks during our contracted hours, with 18 per cent saying they regularly work through lunch.
Furthermore, despite being entitled to annual leave, a recent Expedia survey of 7,855 workers across 25 countries found that while almost half of the Irish workers surveyed said they felt “holiday deprived”, nearly 8 per cent of days due are not taken. This is equivalent to some 3.3 million unused days of annual leave.
While many cited a lack of money as the reason for not taking their full entitlement, 17 per cent said their work schedule did not allow them to take the due days.
Linehan says that because of the recession, many employees have simply been too nervous about job security to take holidays in recent years.
“If you feel your position is insecure,” she says, “then there can be concern that if the company . . . can be seen to do without you for two or three weeks, then perhaps it can do without you completely. Some organisations are happy to encourage that type of anxiety among staff.”
There’s a cost to all this extra work for both employees and employers. It might seem as though companies have all to gain from workers who are prepared to do more than the minimum, but that can lead to increased absence through sickness. Or, just as bad, it increases cases of “presenteeism”, where staff still turn up up don’t do the work properly.
Dr Yseult Freeney, chair of the MSc in work and organisational psychology course at Dublin City University, sympathises with those trying to adjust to the new reality. However, she also believes that employees can say no.
"People have to take responsibility for their own behaviour in this, rather than just try to pin it all on an unforgiving employer,” she says.
“There is certainly an increased blurring of the boundaries between work and the rest of one’s life, and people can feel pressure because they feel that they can never do enough. But they also need to be more assertive if they want change to happen within an organisation.”
It will come as no shock to hear that technology has not been the worker’s best friend in all of this. John Maynard Keynes once predicted that better technology would eventually lead to a 15-hour working week, but a 2014 survey by Fastnet Recruitment showed that three quarters of Irish people thought it had had a negative impact on their work-life balance.
Freeney acknowledges that technology is both a curse and a blessing for employees in terms of trying to stop working. But she’s keen to stress the importance of clocking off.
“Recent research shows that even taking your lunch break, getting out of the office, going for a walk for 15 minutes and taking in your surrounding, makes you more productive at work in the afternoon.” she says. “We often think we’ll get more done if we stay at our desks, but actually you’re only depleting the energy that you have to face the tasks still ahead of you. So you’re better off to walk away.”
“Recovery periods are critical for workers,” Freeney adds, “and organisations should encourage staff to take proper breaks because they will get more from their employees in terms of productivity by doing so.”
While concerned at the additional hours workers in Ireland are putting in, Freeney is also keen to acknowledge that it isn’t all bad.
“When individuals feel they have more autonomy and can decide how to structure their day, there’s a strong chance they’ll end up working longer hours,” she says. “But it also means they feel empowered and more fulfilled.
“They can be willing participants in that they enjoy work so much that it doesn’t necessarily feel like work.”
Previously published in The Irish Times.
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