October 8, 2019
As reported recently, Labour’s John McDonnell says that his party would introduce a 32-hour working week. Very French. What’s more, he states that this should not impact on people’s wages because ‘People should work to live, not live to work’. Don’t disagree there. However, for a vast number of workers this isn’t viable; especially in the knowledge economy. Admittedly, there will be people in factories, call centres, etc who will be relieved at the prospect of fewer working hours and more hours with loved ones.
Spare a thought, though, for the career-minded knowledge workers who still dream of something resembling a work/life balance. Consider the UK’s fastest growing sectors – fintech, biotech, digital marketing and advertising. Then there’s the creatives. These are young sectors, with young workers and, often, young bosses. They don’t find their careers mundane – and (excuse the broad-strokes here) if they do get bored with what they’re doing, they switch paths and seek something new and exciting. They’ve mostly read Simon Sinek’s ‘Start With Why’ and are therefore less interested in the ‘what’.
Of course, when it comes to looking at mental health, these people have the advantage of being engaged, of being happy with what they’re doing – and that’s certainly healthy.
There are still massive issues, however; the first being that these people tend to work long and hard. 32 hours? They haven’t even warmed-up properly after 32 hours! They are all asked to opt out of the mandated 48-hour week (as I always was) and they largely do. Most of them are relieved that the weekend has arrived so they can get more work done!
Take my own profession as an example. Now don’t get me wrong, the world of interior design and architecture has given me so much in terms of travel, freedom, and lifelong learning. What ‘our world’ also has, however, are immovable deadlines, and demanding clients. Yes, those pesky stress creators, who constantly demand your time, energy, attention and expertise. Those stress creators, who pay your bills, allow you said travel and freedom and who teach you so much about what they do. There is one word I feel I should go back to, however: demanding.
The truth about working hours and pay
The core truth of remuneration is that it comes with expectations. Budgets, deadlines and levels of quality to be met. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that – and it is also not unique to this sector.
That will, inevitably, bring with it long hours, late nights, weekends away from your loved ones…and stress. I was recently asked to take part in a Round Table discussion where one young interior designer spoke refreshingly honestly about the working hours she was expected to put in by her employer – a major global design firm. I was appalled, but not surprised. She stated that, on average, not only had she physically been in the design studio more than the 32-hours by the middle of Wednesday, she seldom left before 7.30pm and was expected to be checking calls and emails hours before and after reaching ‘work’ (meaning it’s not on the time sheet). This is all work, and – I’ll be blunt here – it’s a form of management cheating. This is not the way a bright, articulate, talented young person should be treated.
My fear, for so many young people across so many markets, is that this suffering will just become the norm
And the reason given for why she was treated in this way? Client demands. I’m not buying that either. Like so many industries, this is an incredibly competitive one – and her bosses have promised blood, sweat and tears to win the pitch, so guess who’s really going to suffer? My fear, for so many young people across so many markets, is that this suffering will just become the norm, especially as the competitive nature of business ramps up further still.
I want to be clear: This will – without a shadow of a doubt – lead to mental and physical health issues. I say that because I lived it. This generation and the ones to follow will be burnt-out before they have a chance to become bored and change direction.
Where responsibility lies
No person in a responsible position should put that much unnecessary stress onto a colleague. As with so many things in life, a bit of courtesy, consideration for others, coupled with common sense and sound planning goes a long way. This may sound simplistic and even idealistic to a lot of people – but I’m not going to stress about it. I’ve lived that too, and I’ll tell you now which I prefer.
Work to your means, then stretch it without breaking yourself
So, like most knowledge workers, I’ll ignore Mr McDonnell and his fairytale 32-hour week. The talent wars are heating up and I can’t tell you how many candidates ask me about working hours when interviewing, and in particular if we pay overtime. They’re also quite incredulous when I point out that overtime in our practice is rare.
For us, and others like us, it’s simple, really. Work to your means, then stretch it without breaking yourself. Work better. Work efficiently. And most importantly, work collaboratively and constantly ‘sharpen the saw’ by learning new things and trying new ways of working.
And for us in positions of responsibility? Choose better clients, because there’s always a choice. And the ones that are respectfully demanding are worth the world.
Also know that you’re not alone. Put your hand up. Talk to people. Seek out support and seek to offer support. You just might find that the ‘kill yourself’ culture already has one foot in the grave.
The freedom you gain from knowing you don’t have to buy the ‘pull your weight by killing yourself’ schtick will do wonders for your overall mental state! Then you can choose, and when it’s your choice, that makes all the difference.
And that email you’ve just received at 11.30pm from a great client who’s getting back from lunch? It can wait until the morning.