November 28, 2019
With work collaboration tools like Facebook Workplace growing more common and constant out of hours access to work emails, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between work and leisure. This lack of separation between the office and home risks creating a situation where we have less time to unwind. So it’s not surprising that the World Health Organisation officially classified burnout as an occupational phenomenon. Rising workloads, limited staff and resources, and consistently long hours are all contributing to half a million people in the UK suffering from work related stress, with 15.4 million working days lost as a result. Business and politics are hoping to buck this negative trend by finding ways of improving people’s work-life balance – most recently by experimenting with a four day week.
In the UK, Labour asked Robert Skidelsky, the economic historian, to look into the case for a four-day week to see if it is viable. His answer? Sometimes. The Royal Mail has committed to reducing its working week from 39 hours to 35 for 120,000 postal workers. Meanwhile in Japan, Microsoft made headlines recently when it published the results of a four-day week trial that saw productivity jump by 40 percent.
But before we say goodbye to the traditional five-day week, we need to ask if reducing the number of days we work would actually tackle the problem of excessive stress? Or whether it could make the issue worse?
Reducing the number of days in our working week is not the answer to workplace stress and burnout
While the four-day work week is still far from common, in Europe it certainly seems to be gaining traction. However, I believe that reducing the number of days in our working week is not the answer to workplace stress and burnout. Work, regardless of how many days of the week we do it, brings pressure and stress with it. This isn’t always a bad thing – increased pressure is closely linked to high performance – but if we assume that the four-day week is the silver bullet to the UK’s problems then we risk just condensing the same issues and the same negative working cultures into a shorter timeframe.
What we need to focus on is creating a healthy workplace environment where people have the ability to manage pressure and stress efficiently. This will allow us to be more productive and perform better in all scenarios.
Our research tells us that one of the biggest factors contributing to an increase in undue levels of stress amongst UK employees is a lack of managerial support. Nearly half (46 percent) of respondents to our Resilience Tracker survey feel like their business doesn’t provide them with the resources to cope with stress.
Reducing the working week would do little to address this issue. A more sensible solution would be to provide employees with the tools needed to deal with stress. This includes working with people to help them appreciate the value of resilience as a means to improve performance under pressure, as well as teaching them how to handle stress and protect their wellbeing.
The best way to boost employees’ resilience will be unique to each organisation. But what I do know is this: if companies invest in their staff’s wellbeing, productivity will improve. Business leaders also need to build a secure work environment and incorporate stress reduction habits into their team’s daily workflows, such as making time for regular exercise and meditation.
To address the UK’s stress and productivity problem, the conversation needs to move away from the extremes of a 12-hour working day or four-day working week; and focus on giving people the tools to manage stress when things feel like they are getting out of control. Fostering employee welfare is not only the right thing to do, it will benefit both business efficiency and productivity in the long run.
Adrian Moorhouse is Managing Director at Lane4 Management Group. Adrian won a gold medal in the 100m breaststroke at the Seoul Olympic Games in 1988 and was world number one in his event for six consecutive years. He was awarded an MBE in 1987.
Image by Gerd Altmann