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Doing more by doing less

We are not computers and perhaps need to work slightly shorter hours than we do at the moment to be more productive says Billy MacInnes

There’s an interesting article on the BBC website this month on the subject of whether working long hours is bad for you. Personally, I’ve always thought it was. This probably stems from the 80s when we used to talk in amazement of Japanese workers who stayed on well after going home time because they didn’t want to be seen to leave before the boss. It was always clear to me if that was the main reason they were staying late they weren’t doing anything productive.

In fact, it’s probably more accurate to describe the article as looking at the value of taking breaks and working less as a means to improve your productivity and well-being. On one level, this shouldn’t really be that difficult to grasp. After all, someone working 14 hours is likely to make a lot more mistakes and produce shoddier work as their working day progresses. That’s just human nature. We’re not machines that can be programmed to produce the same level of work over an extended period of time. It’s worth pointing out that the article suggests there is no correlation between working hours and productivity.

As the article’s author, Amanda Ruggeri notes, we might tend to think of our brain as a computer that is capable of constant work, but that’s not true and “pushing ourselves to work for hours without a break can be harmful, some experts say”. Studies show a correlation between long working hours and increased risk of coronary heart disease, strokes, earlier death and worse health.

You could argue, actually, that because we’re not machines we are capable of producing very good work in shorter bursts and that the short bursts of work we do is likely to be better than anything someone working a machine-like 12 hour days would be able to create.

The crux of the issue is summed up in the concluding sentence: “But in order to do more, it seems, we may have to become comfortable with doing less.”

It’s not just that we may need to do less but that we will need to be comfortable with it. To me, that’s the difficult part. How many people feel the need to relentlessly prove that they are working hard to their bosses and their peers? Why do they feel that need? Where is the realisation that working hard is not necessarily working better?

I have been in offices where people have worked long hours and it’s very clear that they have become institutionalised with a working pattern that bears little or no resemblance to the actual amount of work they do. Frequently, they could have done the work within a normal 9-5 working day. But would they have felt comfortable doing that when everyone around them was staying on in the office?

Returning to the subject of doing less, how comfortable would someone be telling an employer “no, I’m not working hard at the moment, this is my time for doing less but it will help me to work better later”. How amenable would an employer be to hearing that statement?

Would employers be happy to pay someone a salary for a job in the knowledge that they would work much harder some hours than others, even if that employee’s overall productivity improved? To all intents and purposes, that’s the reality on the ground but if you made it explicit would they accept there was a link between the two? Or would they attempt to reduce an employee’s salary and working hours to try and harness the most productive periods and not pay for the others? Just how comfortable would we be with that?

This was last published in December 2017

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