What if your success at work means fitting in with a long hours culture?

06 April 2016

Long hours culture

Apparently the UK and the US are two of the worst countries when it comes to a long hours culture at work.

If you’re an ambitious young professional, determined to move up the ladder and to succeed, you’re not going to go against the prevailing culture of the place where you work. Any slacking would be seen as showing the wrong attitude, and that could be death to your career progression.

In my experience, a company’s commitment to social responsibility is no indicator of its attitude to having a long hours culture. I know several professional firms, particularly consultancies, lawyers, accountants and financial firms, who have great CSR policies on a wide range of matters but will concede that one of the areas where they don’t fit the pattern is to do with the hours they expect of their executives.

A lot of the advice you see on this sort of issue revolves around “raise the problem in private with your line manager” type stuff. In some contexts, that may well be the way to go. But we know full well that in the private sector, high-flying success-oriented executives will see that as an invitation to fail. Let’s deal with this the way it is, not the way we’d like it to be.

Long hours bosses notice the start of the day – when you get in – and the end of the day – when you leave

If you’re in charge of the company, there’s no excuse. You set the tone. If you work long hours, everybody else will assume that’s what they need to do to win your approval. And it makes sense not to let this happen. Encourage your people to work longer hours and the impact over time will be that they become less productive which means you don’t actually get more from them, just that you burn them out quicker and the talented ones go elsewhere.

But I’m assuming you’re not in charge. So you want to fit the prevailing culture.

Even if you’re quite a senior manager, your power is limited on this. I remember once being in charge of a team within a larger organisation. I told my own people constantly that I wasn’t in favour of a long hours culture, and I specifically aimed to set the example in my own behaviour. 

It was a waste of time. Those smart, ambitious individuals looked around them and saw that, even though I might not believe in such an approach, the rest of the company operated that way. And if they wanted to impress the CEO, or anyone else they might end up moving to work for, then they had to fit in with expectations other than mine.

But here’s the thing. Bosses who value a long hours culture are wrong, and they are simply providing you with a set of obstacles you need to overcome in order to be effective. It’s not the only instance where smart employees need to navigate the hurdles of bad management in order to do a good job.

Long hours bosses notice the start of the day – when you get in – and the end of the day – when you leave. OK, but if you’re going to stay fresh, and remain effective, you need to pace yourself through the rest of the day (although it does depend on the exact nature of your job, and the realities of your day to day work).

Take a lunch break. If it’s not the done thing to “take your full hour” then aim to arrange some of the more informal meetings with colleagues over lunch. Or you may find that certain other activities are seen with more approval, such as going for a run (“helps me to keep my energy levels high through the afternoon”).

Programme in a couple of other breaks, go for a walk (“I have a problem to think through, and walking helps me clarify what I need to do”). Schedule outside meetings with people away from the office. Things that break the day up but that are justified within the course of getting work done. If you know you’re going to be at the office until 9pm, then taking time out during the day is not a genuine moral dilemma. Schedule these things into your day – put them in as meetings if you need to in order to keep the time free.

The flip side of this is then to make sure the time you are spending at your desk is productive. Nobody will much notice the time you spend recharging mid-day so long as the work’s getting done. So make sure you have a system for managing interruptions, you have good processes for focusing on your most important tasks first and all that good time management stuff. This isn’t about avoiding hard work, just about being smarter about it.

Recognise that all the above are coping mechanisms – things that you do in order to keep yourself in the state where you can perform at a high level, in spite of the company’s carelessness in pushing you to the point where your performance degrades. They are things to do when you’re feeling strong in order to stay strong. If you’re feeling ground down and burnt out, these sorts of tricks will not be enough.

Incidentally, don’t reinforce the culture by judging others. Sometimes employees develop a tacit consensus about the standards they will set in the face of unreasonable demands from above. Strength in numbers.

And don’t end up replicating these behaviours when you end up moving elsewhere. It’s amazing how many things we actually absorb into our own mindset that we started off seeing as bad practice.

And don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this is all about how tough you are. That someone made of the ‘right stuff’ surely doesn’t need so much sleep, can work all the hours without batting an eye. It’s about making sure you get the right conditions that enable you to operate at peak performance. Ask yourself if top athletes know anything about balancing activity with rest in order to get peak performance out of themselves.

Oh, and if you do end up gaining sufficient authority within the company that you can behave how you like up to a point (which I suppose is where I was in the instance I referred to earlier) then you should use your position to try to change the culture. It’s a tricky thing to do. I certainly failed to do it. But I did try, if that means anything at all. 

Is the long hours culture something you’ve come across? How do/did you cope with it?