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Are we working more hours than ever?

Ever felt like checking your emails at midnight? Had that itch to glance at your phone? You’re not alone. To many of us, it feels like we’re working more than ever. Late nights at the office, weekend work, expectations to reply to your boss when you’re on vacation; workaholism is a defining feature of modern society.

But although it feels like we’re always working, are working hours actually increasing? Not according to Our World In Data that says, “The available data shows that in the 19th century people across the world used to work extremely long hours, but in the last 150 years working hours have decreased substantially, particularly in today’s richest countries.”

Some countries such as India, Philippines and China have increased their working hours over time. And although working hours have declined in many countries, for example in the United States average working hours per worker have dropped from 3,096 hours per year in 1870 to 1,757 hours in 2017, the trend certainly hasn’t been felt across all industries.

The culture of “crunch” in the games industry reached the mainstream when Erin Hoffman or ‘EA Spouse’, the wife of an Electronic Arts game developer, described working hours from 9am to 10pm, 7 days a week. The banking and financial sector has traditionally been known for its long working hours, in which employees pretty much trade their life for the opportunity to become extremely wealthy. For example, junior bankers at Goldman Sachs are working 98 hours a week.

Man working late at the office

The length of hours one works also depends on an employee’s unique circumstances. Senior management might not say it outright, but workers sometimes feel that taking leave is frowned upon, especially for junior employees. Some workers can’t pass responsibility of their tasks onto others, so if they do take leave, they know they’ll have a pile of tasks and hundreds of emails waiting for them upon their return; which has two consequences. The employee wonders if it’s worth taking leave in the first place, and they consider answering emails and doing work while on vacation.

Others, for example those who work in a family business and are closely related to senior management, feel they should be setting an example of hard work. They dread the labels of nepotism and favouritism. They often work more hours than they need to and rarely take the full amount of leave assigned to them.

Some companies such as Virgin and Netflix have experimented with unlimited vacation policies. While the intention is to encourage staff to take time off; as Reed Hastings says, “If you are working all the time, you don’t have the perspective to see your problem with fresh eyes”, the policies can have opposite effect. Some staff may end up working more, not wanting to be seen as the workers taking advantage of company policy.

In some industries, there’s almost an unwritten code that states: Working regular hours will ruin your chances of progression. That’ll show you’re not as committed as other staff. Instead, work late into the night. Show your boss and senior management that you’ll stay in the office while it’s dark outside and everyone else has gone home.

In some countries people want to see the the culture of long working hours disappear but tradition is hard to uproot. Photos of Japanese salarymen sleeping in stations and people dozing off in train carriages paint a picture of a society where overwork is deeply ingrained. You know the problem is serious when a word like Karoshi exists, which means ‘death by overwork’. A culture of fear exists within the corporate world where leave requests are regularly denied and many workers just take 1 or 2 days off a year.

In industries from finance to gaming there is an underlying culture of drug use to help people cope with the pressures of overwork. In the United States it’s estimated that two-thirds of young adults are using Adderall illegally, particularly in college to help them study for longer hours and be more productive. In Silicon Valley, young professionals “microdose” psychedelic drugs such as LSD and magic mushrooms to help them become more creative and focused.

However despite the relentless push to cope with longer working hours, there is a growing counter-movement that decries the ‘hustle’ and ‘grind’ culture that’s so often celebrated on social media. Many companies recognise the benefits that reduced working hours have on staff productivity and motivation. Some companies even pay employees to take their vacations. FullContact, for example, pays up to $7,000 per year for staff to travel. AirBnb gives employees a $2,000 travel credit each year.

Companies are also coming round the the idea that it’s not just the number of hours that’s important, it’s the number of productive hours that makes a difference. Various companies have trialled 4 day work weeks with no decrease in pay, resulting in increased revenues, reduced absenteeism and a willingness to keep the 4-day-on / 3-day-off schedule. While the 4 day week hasn’t worked for every company, there is an increased focus on employee wellbeing and productivity. Employees want to help the companies they work for succeed, but driving staff into the ground isn’t the way to do it.

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