When you’re working, you’re working.

This morning I read a very interesting article titled “Time to call time on out of hours email?” Whilst this article could be easily categorised as just another treatise on work-life balance and the contemporary tendency to work long hours, its impact on me was driven by one sentence: “in 2015 people in the UK worked £31.5 billion worth of hours without getting paid a penny”.

So, to define terms, the article was a commentary on the amount of hours of “work” done outside of official time, often outside of the workplace. Perhaps work on the train, maybe using the smartphone, perhaps keeping up with comms whilst on “holiday”, checking emails at night or first thing in the morning? Reminds me of some interviews I was doing a number of years ago for a nationwide organisation here in the UK, where one candidate apparently felt that a way to impress the interview panel was to say he checked his email each morning after getting up, even before visiting the bathroom. We were not impressed, we just thought it was weird behaviour.

We all know colleagues, who ‘take work home’; and subsequently use it as a conversation piece – essentially bragging about how busy they are. Evidence is that as number of hours worked expand beyond a rational number of hours for a week, productivity does not expand commensurately. In fact, the evidence indicates productivity goes down.

So why do people do it, i.e. spend time working beyond their contracted hours?

  • Does the workload need to be addressed? Is there too much in the job for one person?
  • Is the job holder incompetent? Perhaps their time management or other task related skills are inadequate.
  • Has the employer organisation spawned a ‘presence’, a focus on time spent rather than outcomes achieved?
  • Perhaps the broader milieu, within which the employing organisation is situated, signals the need for “long hours culture”?
  • Does the jobholder believe that bragging about long hours worked (whether they have actually done them or not) makes them look good, perhaps with a promotion or pay rise in view?
  • When doing their job, during ‘official’ hours is the job holder actually focused or are they distracted and doing non job related things, either in their head or in actuality?

I could list off many other possibilities here but a consistent theme appears to be something of a loss of perspective, in terms of ‘an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay”. If an employee took a number of days off, without signalling they were sick or on leave, they would be hauled in to explain themselves. Though the word might not be used, one of the core issues would be the employee fraudulently expecting to collect pay for the time not done. So when an employee works extra hours is it fraudulent for the employer to expect the work to be done without pay (£31.5 billion)? Of course the world does not work like that.

It would be very easy to say the onus is on the employee to ensure they are not exploited by working beyond their normal hours. That would be much too simplistic a view, as there are a myriad of pressures that would press down on an employee causing them to do such extra hours – e.g. carrots like possible pay raises or promotions, sticks like not completing projects on time, fear of redundancy; to name but a tiny proportion.

In overview I am reminded of a very successful colleague from Undergraduate days who said his philosophy was not to allow work to bleed into personal time and to focus completely when working. He summed it up with the phrase “when you’re working, you’re working”.

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Martin Coffey

About Martin Coffey

Postgraduate Career Development Adviser, Doctoral College Team.

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