Working too much?

Wed, 24 Sep 2014

Regular visitors to this blog will have read about my previous experiences of Economics Burlesque. Last night was the first session after the summer, with the New Economics Foundation’s Anna Coote leading the discussion on the benefits of reducing working hours.

This is a subject that I’ve thought about previously, and even blogged about. I believe that there are a lot of people who work more hours than they rationally should: the benefits to the individual and society of extra ‘free’ time (perhaps spent with family or friends, or on education, creative or community pursuits) would outweigh the value that a company gets from you working those extra hours.

I’m not an enormous fan of rules to restrict working hours, partly because of difficulties in measuring exactly what constitutes work, partly because different people have justifiably different needs, and partly because I don’t like to use “making people happier” as a justification for restricting their freedom. I do, however, believe there are other things that can and should be done to create a trend towards lower working hours.

It is a complex issue, and last night's discussion managed to cover many aspects:

New Economics Foundation published a book last year: Time on our Side. I’ve downloaded it to read on my Kindle, and it is 3rd in line in my reading list (if only I had more time!), but no doubt once I’ve finished it I’ll have more to say. But in the meantime, I thought I’d make a few comments on my own situation with respect to working time.

Other than two stints in consulting, I’ve always worked in environments where the top employees were traders. The great thing about working with traders is that it shatters the base assumption that time worked is a proxy for value added. Good employees are in a position to add so much more value than their colleagues, so most managers know not to judge or reward their employees on time worked. I know there is still a lot wrong with paying people on short-term, unsustainable measures of value that can be gamed - but I’d rather be rewarded based on an approximation of value than on time worked (which was how things mostly worked in big consulting organisations).

I’d also say, in these trading environments, contrary to what you might think, I’ve always had management that wanted to keep their staff happily employed. I’ve had several colleagues and bosses work part time or take sabbaticals, and I’ve always been encouraged to take my holidays and get out of the office at a sensible time. I’m sure that is partly because it makes good business sense (it costs a lot to replace someone who leaves, and engaged employees do add a lot more value in creative roles involving judgement and autonomy), but I do also believe that good managers have enough empathy to genuinely want their employees to be happy.

I know I’m lucky to be in this position, but I do think that there are a lot more people in this position that would be suggested by the common view that employers are all forcing employees to work long hours without caring about the impact on productivity or employee contentness.

Even with all that, I do choose to work some pretty long hours. That said, I do find it helpful to make a point of regularly checking that my hours are sensible, by asking the following questions: