People

Death wish: are we killing ourselves to work?

New research suggests that working more than 40 hours a week is profoundly detrimental to our health. So why is the global workplace so wedded to long working hours – and is there an alternative model we should adopt?

Across the world, the 40-to-48 hour minimum working week is almost standard in many professions.

Despite almost every technological development coming with promises of working fewer hours as machines take over our most menial work, in many industries we seem to be expected to work longer every year. Crucially, this tends not to be by choice; if your company tells you that you work from 0900 to 1800, then that is when you will work.

Humans are not robots, however. Humans cannot work on a task for five solid blocks of eight. Nobody who has an eight-hour working day actually works for eight hours. Anyone who has had a job knows that you need to subtract from this time spent getting coffee, talking to colleagues, going to bathroom and so on, which all take a considerable chunk out of your eight hours.

‘Subtract the time spent on social media and texting friends…’

And those are just the legitimate distractions – often you must also subtract time spent reading the news, looking at social media and texting friends. Having said that, ultimately most people get their work done in time. People who consistently do not get their work done tend to be sacked, yet the majority of people do not get sacked despite being human and not actually working eight hours per day.

Why does this disparity occur? The idea that we must be at work for a certain number of hours is an antiquated one that has its roots in factories with long lines of workers who are continually performing some manual process. If they were at their workstation, they were working and there was no more to it.

Knowledge work is different

But service work and knowledge work in particular are not like that. An idea or solution may come while strolling around the office or getting a cup of coffee. You may be turning things over in your head on the train home. You could think of a way of improving a process while out for lunch. Conversely, you may sit at your desk for eight hours failing to come up with any ideas. Is your time spent sitting at the desk more valuable than your time spent completing your work?

The evidence that spending large amounts of time at work is detrimental to our health is mounting. In a large-scale meta-analysis, research published recently in The Lancet has shown that the longer people work, the greater their risk of stroke and coronary heart disease.

The findings for strokes were particularly compelling: you have 1.3 times higher risk of stroke if working more than 55 hours per week compared to working up to 40 hours. Stroke risk was found to increase with every hour spent working over 40, even when adjusted for socioeconomic status, age and sex.

Decline in mental health

Further research by the Australian National University published last year has shown that longer work hours are detrimental to health, with anything above 39 hours per week causing a decline in mental health, particularly for women. Considering that even employee-friendly legislation such as the EU Working Time Directive limits workers to 48-hour weeks, it seems that the majority of the world is geared up for working longer than is healthy.

With industrial problems like lack of productivity and inefficiency looming, many companies are now starting to look at innovative solutions to these problems. Although it is more difficult to measure than time spent at a desk, there is evidence that reducing working hours can have a range of benefits, including lowering absenteeism, improving employee health and enhancing employee engagement.

This approach certainly chimes with anecdotal evidence – people often report that having less time to do their work in actually makes them more efficient and better able to concentrate, not to mention having the benefit of having an extra day for relaxation.

Sweden is a country well known for its experimental approach to new ways of working, particularly in terms of making its employees healthier and happier. Sweden has been pioneering experiments in reducing hours for several years. A widely reported study at the Svartedalens elderly care facility in Gothenburg had nurses working for six-hour days instead of eight-hour days for two years.

‘Shorter days led to happier employees…’

After two years, they found that nurses were taking fewer sick days and were getting more sleep; they also anecdotally reported feeling a lot less stressed and happier during the trial. It is important to remember that this approach did cost money in the short-term, while many of the gains will only be experienced in the long-term.

But it is also important to remember that working, particularly in stressful jobs, wears out our bodies, with the government (at least in most developed countries) ultimately picking up the bill when workers retire with a range of health problems brought on by excessive working, such as obesity. The company may also pick up costs in the form of sick days and poor productivity. These costs could be saved, but suffer from being difficult to quantify and long-term, while the costs involved in shortening working hours are short-term, making this a difficult prospect for employers to entertain.

Staff at Glasgow-based company Pursuit Marketing offer another example of successfully working fewer hours per week. They work for four days on a permanent basis, following an earlier successful trial. Their productivity has increased by 30 per cent and their turnover has more than doubled. Their operations director also reports that companies specifically choose to work with them because of the way that they treat their staff, that their culture drives better results and better performance, and that they have been more successful in attracting and retaining the best talent.

Clear benefits in reduced hours

Although it may not work for every type of job or for every organisation, there are clear benefits in reducing the amount of time we spend at work. Employees are likely to become happier and healthier, taking fewer sick days, reducing their healthcare costs and being more productive in the time they spend at work. They will also stay healthier for longer rather than dying prematurely from work-related illnesses.

Any employee lost to poor health can potentially be a huge cost to a company as they may take specific skills and knowledge with them, which then need to be replaced through time sourcing a new employee, training and development. This can be especially devastating to small companies that may have few specialists.

Reducing working hours may therefore present a way to reduce employee costs while making it easier to attract and retain talent, and improve staff satisfaction and productivity. Organisations should be experimenting with ideas like this to at least determine if they work. If we can collect enough data on a shorter working week, we can begin to move away from a society in which we kill ourselves to work.

Arraz Makhzani is a workplace analyst at UnWork