Why Jeremy Hunt is wrong about the need to work long hours

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Long-hoursThis week the UK’s Health Secretary found himself at the centre of a storm because of some comments he’d made suggesting that eroding one of the UK’s welfare platforms would encourage people to work as hard as the ‘Chinese and Americans’. Most of the backlash against these comments was political, so make your own mind up on that score, but they don’t stack up from a practical point of view either. The British already work some of the longest hours in Europe so encouraging people to work more will do little or nothing to resolve the productivity puzzle, as a 2014 report from the Bank of England confirms. Of course, we should all have worked out by now that long hours and productivity are not the same thing. It’s been a longstanding issue in the UK where people manage to combine some of the longest working hours in Europe with levels of productivity that fall habitually behind those of our partners on the mainland.

At any one time a number of reports are in circulation which not only make the point (gain) that long hours and the obsession with work may actually be reducing our productivity and even harming us physically, emotionally and psychologically.  The range of ailments associated with the dysfunctional ways we work include stress, stroke, deep vein thrombosis, relationship breakdown, a range of infections and feelings of isolation. The question they all posit is whether it’s all worth it, especially if we’re not getting as much done as we’d like to think.

 

A greater risk of stroke and ill health

Perhaps the most scientific of the studies was published during August in the UK’s foremost medical journal The Lancet. Using data from more than half a million employees, the study concludes that people who work long hours beyond what might be considered a typical structured working day are more likely to suffer a stroke. Although the researchers avoid explaining the exact cause of the correlation, they claims that compared to people who work between 35 and 40 hours a week, those who average over 48 hours  have an increased risk of 10 percent, those who work up to 54 hours have a 27 percent increase and those who put in over 55 hours, 33 percent.

The lead researcher in the study, Dr Mika Kivimaki of University College London, claims that it is too early to pinpoint exactly what is going on. Ideas that researchers are now exploring include the extra stress of long hours, that sitting for long periods may make stroke more likely or that long hours are closely linked to a range of other important lifestyle factors including poor diet and lack of exercise.

In an interview with the BBC, The Stroke Association’s Dr Shamim Quadir commented: “Working long hours can involve sitting for long periods of time, experiencing stress and leads to less time available to look after yourself. We advise that you have regular blood pressure checks, if you’re at all concerned about your stroke risk you should make an appointment with your GP or health professional.”

 

The lure of jet set living

Not all of the problems are associated with putting in unduly long hours at a desk. According to a report by researchers at Linnaeus University and the University of Surrey a group who they describe as the ‘hypermobile’ are equally prone to a range of associated issues. These are the people who enjoy what may be considered a superficially glamorous life, constantly on the road or in the air and falling prey to the assumption that this is an attractive way to work.

“Mobility for business and pleasure is typically glamorised and encouraged in more privileged societies,” the report’s authors write. “Mobility patterns are now vital and consequential venues of competition for social status, agents of social connectedness, and identity formation.”

However the problems associated with a life of perpetual travel identified by the researchers include jet lag, deep vein thrombosis, infections, heart disease, stroke, stress, anxiety, feelings of isolation and the breakdown of personal relationships. The report even suggests that people who fly more than 85,000 miles a year may exceed regulatory limits for exposure to radiation. Like their desk bound contemporaries, they may also fall prey to poor nutrition and lack of exercise.

 

Nobody else knows or cares about the hours you work

Parkinson's_Law_BookThere is no direct correlation between the hours we work and the stuff we produce. We’ve known this for a long time, of course, and it has been popularly codified as Parkinson’s Law – work expands to fill the time available for its completion. A study published in the journal Organization Science in the Spring not only supports this principle but also suggests that not only will you not get more done by working longer hours, it’s very unlikely that any of your colleagues or managers will be able to tell anyway. In the study of consultants carried out by Professor Erin Reid, of Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to. While those who openly worked fewer hours came to the attention of managers, there was no evidence that those who pretended to put in an extra shift actually did any more work.

 

The rules of productivity

A game designer has posted a set of “Rules of Productivity“, claiming that working over 40 hours makes you less productive rather than more. Daniel Cook, whose professional online profile describes him as a game designer, pixel artist, toolmaker, physicist and MBA – and currently the Chief Creative Officer at Spry Fox – showed how working a 60 hour week could lead to a “productivity deficit”.

He wrote: “In a 60 hour crunch people have a vague sense that they are doing worse, but never think that they should stop crunching. They imagine that working 40 hours a week will decrease their productivity. In fact, it will let them rest and increase their productivity”.

Daniel Cook’s suggestion of the contrasting levels of productivity according to hours worked per week Daniel Cook’s suggestion of the contrasting levels of productivity according to hours worked per week Cook cited 31 studies which found flexible schedules “increased employee productivity and lower absenteeism”, as well as a report by the National Work Life Measurement Project which claimed one third of managers.