Staying at work late is a fact of the modern workplace. And in many professional technical sectors - particularly when time-critical projects and short-term contracts are involved - it’s simply unavoidable.
But there’s evidence that consistently working long hours doesn’t benefit businesses - or staff - in the long run.
A recent study by the TUC found that full-time employees in the UK work the longest hours in the EU - 42 hours a week in 2018 on average. Yet despite this, German and Danish workers are actually more productive despite working fewer hours.
Obviously a long hours culture affects employee health and wellbeing, too. It’s already been associated with poor work-life balance, poor mental health, poorer quality of sleep and weight gain. It’s also a huge cause of stress-related absence. Now, a new study links working days of 10-hours+ for at least 50 days a year to an increase in the risk of stroke too.
Many workplace experts blame a widespread culture of ‘presenteeism’, or employees being rewarded and measured by how much time they spend at work - even if they’re less productive, need rest or even unwell.
Yet it’s clear that being able to foster a culture of leaving work on time can bring a host of benefits for employees - and in turn businesses. With gains in productivity, less sickness absence and staff wanting to stay on board for longer, it’ll also boost your external employer brand if you’re known as a business that encourages a healthy work-life balance.
How can your business tackle the long hours culture? Let’s look at some ideas.
If your business has the culture of people staying way beyond contracted hours, employees come to believe this is the norm and anything else won’t quite measure up.
Leadership has a vital role to play in setting the tone, not only in encouraging staff to stick to their hours but also quashing the myth that staff should consistently work long hours for a badge of honour.
The most powerful signal managers can send their staff? Being seen to go home themselves on time regularly (even one or two evenings a week may help to change the mood music).
There’s no doubt that meetings are a great chance to catch up on progress, generate new ideas and solve problems.
But, as we’ve written before at RHL, research has shown them become longer and more frequent throughout the workplace and up to half of them are in fact a waste of time.
Employees who want to leave work on time need to be able to get on with their to-do lists during their day. So if you feel teams spend too much time in meetings it may be time to cut back - or at least look at tactics to shorten them (stand-up meetings work well apparently!)
An important component in staff being able to leave the office on time is their workload.
Realistically, do any employees feel that they simply have to put in the extra hours of unofficial overtime because of the amount of work they have on?
Often, reaching a deadline for a project or contract calls for all hands on deck - and late nights are just part of that. This can be particularly true with international clients who operate in different time zones.
Perhaps there can be time off in lieu as a way to compensate employees afterwards.
Sadly, work often doesn’t end for many when they leave the office (we can thank internet connectivity and devices for that). So while it’s fine to encourage a normal home time, don’t swap that for urgent 9pm work emails.
Employees who feel they have to overcompensate and work in the evenings to play catchup aren’t getting the break they need.
Will clocking off on time ever be the norm, not the exception? For the majority of the technical professional clients we help recruit great candidates for at RHL Recruitment, there’s still some way to go. The fact is, putting in extra hours is often unavoidable – particularly in a competitive landscape suffering from economic uncertainty.
Yet it’s worth remembering that working late is bad for staff - and happy, well-rested employees give more to the organisation they work for. Ideally, it shouldn’t be how long you spend at work, but what you do with the time you spend there.