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Love your people

07 February 2012

Love your people

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Never mind ‘roses are red’ ditties, this February take a moment to think about how you can show a little more love towards your employees...

We’ve said it before and we’re saying it again: in this head-down era of overwork, it’s far too easy to let people burn themselves out before it’s too late. Over five million people in the UK regularly work longer than is healthy for them, reducing their ability to switch off and recharge, triggering conflict in the workplace and damaging their relationships outside of work.

Although on the face of it, the £29.2bn of unpaid overtime our overwork culture generated for employers in 2011 alone might seem like a worthwhile bonus, the reality is that the UK is becoming even less productive. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the proportion of national income created by each worker per hour has leapt in France, Germany and the US, while remaining stagnant in the UK. This means it’s more important than ever that we learn to work smarter rather than just longer.

It’s a proven scientific fact that, after two hours, the longer you apply yourself to a task without a short break, the less effective you become – so why do we still find it so difficult to give ourselves permission to take regular breaks at work, stop for lunch and leave on time?

A huge factor continues to be fear of redundancy with many workers lingering under the perception that being seen to be working late and/or through lunch will go down well with their employer and colleagues, embedding the perception that they’re a hard worker. Hard-working they may be, but effective, productive…?

It’s about time we ended the perception that the longer it takes you to do your job, the better a worker you are. Yes, there are occasions when we all have to put in that little bit extra to overcome a specific challenge or meet a specific deadline. But when everyone routinely pushes themselves beyond their limits, not only are they more likely to become stressed and sick but there’s also no gas left in the tank to pull out the stops when it’s genuinely needed.

On some level, most employers know that allowing employees to overwork themselves is a false economy, giving rise to huge absence, stress or employee engagement issues. So why is it still happening?

The primary reason for people to work unhealthily long hours is that it has become, or always been, the culture of the organisation. Once working late has become the norm, it also becomes the norm for people to schedule meetings due to end outside of normal working hours or ask people to finish tasks to such tight deadlines that unpaid overtime is inevitably required.

This can put incredible pressure on those with childcare or eldercare responsibilities in particular, who often feel pressurised into delivering what’s expected of them at a great personal cost that their colleagues or boss might not even be aware of. But HR can and should do much more than just enforcing proper working hours and putting in place better measures than face-time to measure individual contributions to the business. The single most effective change they can bring about is to measure the negative impact an overwork culture is having, in terms of absence, staff turnover, conflict, reduced customer service or poor engagement, using this data to convince top management to lead moves to eradicate the overwork culture by setting achievable goals to leave on time each day.

Critical to turning the situation around includes talking to employees. Ask them why they think the problem exists (you can virtually guarantee they will have a useful opinion, even if it’s hard to hear) and how they’d suggest changing unhelpful practices, so that business objectives can be delivered without compromising employees’ health. This will also help pre-empt any of the legal issues associated with operating an overwork culture. It may well be that some frank discussions are required about workloads in general. Questions may need to be asked about whether it’s viable to continue with every project on the table or if current deadlines in place are actually feasible - and if so, at what cost?

Bear in mind that employees also have a tendency to work late when they face problems at home or outside work, preferring to stay at work for longer as an avoidance tactic. Once again, such behaviour should be discouraged and the employee encouraged to use any support mechanisms in place, such as the Employee Assistance Programme, to resolve the issues instead of avoiding them. Left unchecked, this can all too easily lead to other maladaptive behaviours such as gambling or alcohol abuse.

Another huge source of lost time is a lack of respect for other people’s time. Even if you’re just five minutes late for a meeting, if there are twelve people in the meeting that’s an hour lost.

The TUC is conducting its annual ‘Work your proper hours day’ on 24th February 2012, whereby it encourages everyone stuck in the rut of regularly working late to leave on time so that they can enjoy their evening, or if, unsurprisingly they find they no longer have a life outside of work, start thinking about how to get one. It’s meant to be ‘the one day in the year when you can make the most of your own time’. How much better would it be if it signified the start of a lifetime of more effective working, so that we could work smarter, enjoy better health and live more happily?