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Bill Bennett


Are you working too hard?

Next time you are in the CBD late at night, notice how many offices remain brightly lit. Chances are a lot will be.

  • A handful might be businesses like call centres, newspapers or IT operations that routinely work night shifts.
  • The offices might be being cleaned.
  • Others are empty. There are companies who like to light their offices at night as a gesture of solidarity with global warming deniers.

You many notice CBD offices where a surprisingly large number of people remain at work long after normal hours.

This is also true where people work from home.

People work longer hours than they did

Long hours are not unusual for knowledge workers. They are more common among younger people, but it happens right across all age ranges.

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

New Zealand isn’t different from other countries.

Given that a sizeable section of the workforce works shifts or fixed hours and you can still find 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 than 44 hours.

At a guess readers of this column are more likely to average 48 hours a week.

But that’s an average. Which means many will work more than that.

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, uncontrolled excessive work hours can lead to serious health issues and other workplace problems. Not to mention 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 plenty of people habitually work 12 to 16 hour days. And many people in cities like Sydney or London have long commutes before and after work.

People who work long hours often do so because of real work pressures – for example you may struggle to meet deadlines. This should be occasional and not the norm. Frequent long hours are a sign that something is wrong at your workplace. Apart from anything else, it’s possible 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 worked in places where there has been a 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.

Employers can argue that there’s a severe skills shortage. This puts pressure on existing workers 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 employees feel pressure to work long hours to save their jobs when times are tough. And yes, there are employers willing to exploit their fears.

Unwelcome, needed

Knowledge workers don’t have to put up with this nonsense. Even in a pandemic.

In the good times there’s always another employer who needs your skills. 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. This is one reason we hear talk of the great resignation.

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. Let’s all doff our caps in reverence to the sheer manliness1 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 won’t be getting enough exercise. There’s a good chance you won’t be eating properly. And you won’t be giving yourself enough downtime.
  • Second, there’s a lot of scientific evidence that long working hours are not productive.

We’ll look closer at both these issues another time. For now, 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.

  1. They are almost always men. ↩︎



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