Next time you drive through the CBD late at night, notice how many offices are brightly lit.

  • A handful might house call centres, newspapers or IT operations; businesses that routinely work night shifts.
  • Some might be lit for cleaners.
  • Others are empty but lit. There are companies who light their offices at night as a gesture of solidarity with global warming deniers.

Yet even from a moving car you may spot people who are still working.

The last time I drove through Auckland I noticed workers and this was at around midnight. I know from experience that the situation is similar in cities around the world.

People work longer hours

Of course, long hours are not unusual for knowledge workers. They are common among younger people in their late teens and early twenties. But it happens across all age ranges.

Surveys show that the average working week for a full-time employee in New Zealand is around 44 hours. Twenty percent of employees regularly work more than 50 hours a week.

New Zealand isn’t different from other countries.

Given a sizeable section of the workforce still works shifts or fixed hours and that there are still many clock-watchers who race out of the door at 5.00pm or 5.30pm this means that for committed workers the average working week is considerably longer.

At a guess, I’d say readers of this column are more likely to average 48 hours a week.

But that’s only an average. Some work more.

Work marathons are not a problem

I’m certain we’ve all pulled the occasional marathon work session or two. Over short periods these are not a problem.

However, over the long-term, if excessive work hours are not strictly controlled they can lead to serious health issues and other major problems in the workplace. Not to mention grave conflicts with those increasingly rare parts of our lives that happen away from work.

Things aren’t as bad today as they were at the height of the dotcom frenzy, but there are still plenty of people who habitually work 12 to 16 hour days. And many people in cities like Sydney or London have long commutes before and after work.

Most people who work long hours do so because of real work pressures – for example, you may struggle to meet deadlines. This is fine if it happens rarely. Frequent long hours are usually a sign that something is badly wrong at your workplace. It shows your employer is not playing fair with staffing levels. And that means you are exploited.

Twisted workplace culture

We’ve all seen companies that demand or extract long hours because of a twisted culture. I’ve certainly worked in places where there has been some complicated game of chicken going on, with employees competing to show management who is the most loyal and dedicated worker by staying in the office later and later.

Of course, these employers might argue that there’s a severe skills shortage so existing workers need to do more. There’s an element of truth. However, abusing something rare and precious is a perverse way to run a business.

No doubt some employees feel pressure to work long hours to save their jobs in a recession. And yes, there are employers only too willing to exploit this fear.

The knowledge worker credo says that you don’t have to put up with that kind of nonsense. Even in a global recession. In the good times, there’s always another employer who needs your skills. So if your employer pressures you to regularly work excessive hours – and in my opinion excessive hours is more than 50 hours a week sustained over a long period – then you have every reason to walk. Even in the bad times, you can find a better deal.

The last time I touched on this issue I received angry and abusive email from readers who think looking after oneself is strictly for sissies. So we’ll all doff our caps in reverence to the sheer manliness of the hardened macho types and remind ourselves of two truths about long hours.

  • First, sustained long hours are not healthy. Period. If you continue to work around the clock you will damage your body. You almost certainly won’t be getting enough exercise. There’s a good chance you won’t be eating properly. And you probably won’t be giving yourself enough downtime.
  • Second, there’s a lot of scientific evidence that long working hours are not productive.

Ask yourself if all the hours you work are necessary. Even if the only pressures are self-imposed, you might want to evaluate your relationship with your employer in terms of the hours you spend working.

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