With rising competition for jobs, and increasing pressure to excel in the workplace, a healthy work-life balance is hard to achieve. The technology we invented to make our lives run smoother means that we seldom switch off.  Could we do things differently?

The distribution of work is – and always will be – an economic and societal challenge.

Dr Jochen Menges

Our work (or lack of it) defines us.  Many people with jobs spend more time with their work colleagues than with their families. Employment offers us the means to enjoy life outside work but it also constrains us, eating into our time and energy. As austerity bites deeper, competition for jobs has risen to epic proportions: there is currently an average of 18 applicants for every job in the UK (Totaljobs.com), and an average of 85 applications for graduate positions (Association of Graduate Recruiters). The pressure to succeed in the workplace has resulted in a culture of long hours that doesn’t always add to productivity and inevitably damages family life. At Cambridge University, work-related topics are studied from a range of perspectives – from economics to philosophy, sociology to people management.

We asked three Cambridge University researchers to answer questions about the ways in which we work. Dr Brendan Burchell is a Reader in the Department of Sociology.  His interests include the effects of labour market experiences on psychological well-being and the social psychological effects of precarious employment and unemployment. Lorna Finlayson is a Junior Research Fellow in Philosophy at King’s College. She works on political philosophy and its relationship to politics, with a particular interest in theories of ideology. Dr Jochen Menges is a Lecturer at Judge Business School with extensive experience in Europe and the US. His work looks at leadership, human resource management and emotions in organisations.

How would you define 'working too hard' and why do we do it?

Brendan Burchell We can measure how hard people work in two ways: first, how many hours they work per week, and second, how much effort they put into each hour of work, or how much time pressure they are under.  Usually by work we mean ‘paid work’ but this overlooks the amount of unpaid work people do, such as cooking, caring and cleaning in the household.  Men do more paid work per week, on average, than women, but if we include unpaid work, then even women in part-time employment do more work per week on average than men in full-time employment.

Working hard and working long hours is associated with poorer health and burn-out. It is also bad for families, as parents who finish a working day late or exhausted have less time and energy for their partners and children.

Thankfully the number of hours per week that we work has been reducing considerably in the UK over the past 100 years. The amount of effort we put into each hour has been increasing over the past 25 years, but has levelled off in the past 15 years.  It’s difficult to pin-point the reasons for this increase in pressure at work, but likely causes are the demise of trade unions, more efficient management, greater global competition and possibly that people enjoy their jobs more, so they work harder even when there is no economic compulsion to do so.

In the UK, we have more part-time employees than most EU countries, but unfortunately we still have a high proportion of full-time male employees working long hours.  One negative effect of this is to make it more difficult for women to climb to the highest status and best-paid jobs. They have to compete with men who are working long hours, which is difficult to do against the backdrop of a society where women typically bear a far greater share of domestic work than men.

Lorna Finlayson Working too hard means working harder than is good for us - and for the others around us. So what it means depends on what 'good for' means. I find it easier to know what that doesn't mean than to know what it does mean: it doesn't just mean, for instance, 'enhancing our physical fitness' or 'maximising our lifespans'. Many of the things that make our lives bearable are 'unhealthy'. In most cases, we work too hard because society compels us to do so, through creating the necessity for money, and then withholding it unless we work too hard. In the other cases, it is most probably a means of self-distraction.

Jochen Menges Working too hard means that people put too much effort into their work, day after day, month after month, without opportunities to reflect and to recharge their energy. In my study of ‘The Acceleration Trap’ (published in Harvard Business Review) I identify three patterns of working too hard. Some people simply try to do too much in the time they have – that is ‘overloading’. Others lack focus and try to do too many different things simultaneously (‘multiloading’). People deprived of any hope of retreat and feeling imprisoned by the debilitating frenzy of their workplace encounter something I describe as ‘perpetual loading’. Note that working hard can be enjoyable, but working too hard is unsustainable; it saps energy, impairs people cognitively and, ironically, leads to decrements in performance in the long run.

How is increasing use of IT changing the way we work?

BB A generation ago computers were unreliable, and we were poorly trained to use them, so they probably made life a misery for lots of employees.  Now the effects are probably more mixed, making jobs for some people more enjoyable by minimising the repetitive and boring components of work, but making other people feel they are stuck behind a screen rather than enjoying the variety of jobs in the pre-computer era.

LF IT is a labour saving device, and like labour saving devices in general, it has conspicuously failed to save labour. This is not to say we would be better off without it. There is a clear sense in which IT makes innumerable tasks quicker and easier, and thus expands the limits of what we are able to do. It saves labour in that sense. But under the present social conditions, at least, it does not save labour in the sense of allowing us to work less hard, or for less long - we just get certain things done faster (other things slower), and perform endless other tasks, many of them made necessary by the same technology which had sped up the more traditional ones. Of course technology changes the way we work, but it does not do so in a vacuum: how it changes the way we work depends on the kind of society we have.

JM Everybody is aware that the use of technology has changed the way we work. People feel the constant urge to respond to the never-ending in-flow of messages, especially in work cultures that demand instant responses, and they stay connected day and night, every day, every night. There are probably two psychological benefits to this: being in the loop gives people the good feeling that they are needed and it also keeps people busy. But these benefits come with costs: being unable to get out of the loop, at least for some periods of time, deprives people from the opportunity to rest and recover. It also prevents people from reflecting about what they are busy with. Often, what keeps us busy is not what makes us effective, and so a key to success is the ability to step back and reconsider whether what we are doing is the right thing to do. Perhaps, as technology develops, solutions will be found not only to connect people ever more, but also to intelligently disconnect people if there is a need to help them work more effectively.

Is the merging of work and leisure healthy?

BB Factories made life simpler than the agricultural work that preceded the industrial revolution or today’s post-manufacturing era – people could only do paid work in the geographical and temporal limits of the working day inside the factory gates.   Now mobile devices ‘allow’ more of us to work anywhere and anytime.  For some of us this is great advantage, permitting a better accommodation between employment and other activities, such as childcare and leisure, while reducing the need to commute in rush-hours.  Other people feel that it is increasingly hard to control their involvement in employment and they suffer from its spill-over into family and leisure time.

LF No. In a truly healthy society, we might not even mark much of a distinction between work and leisure, and so this question wouldn't arise. A sharp separation is not healthy, but nor is a 'merger' of a damaged version of 'work' (slog) and an equally damaged version of 'leisure' (consumption). To paraphrase a comment by the 1960s psychiatrist RD Laing, there is no point trying to put a shattered Humpty-Dumpty back together. Answering emails in the pub does not make work any more leisure-like, and it certainly does nothing for the pub.

JM The merging of work and leisure can be healthy, especially in the era of the knowledge economy. People’s best ideas for work-related issues often emerge during leisure activities, such as sport or simply relaxing in the sunshine. In addition, leisure time provides people the opportunity to think about their work, take stock of their current activities and then allocate their work time more effectively to high-priority tasks. The merging of work and leisure thus has benefits, but the problem is that too often there is no merging – instead work eats up all the leisure time. That then is problematic, because it robs people the opportunity to have creative ideas, which is counterproductive in knowledge-driven jobs. One solution to this is to make work more leisurely. The company Sonova, a Swiss producer of hearing aids, deliberately builds into the work allocation system leisure periods that follow intense work periods. Microsoft’s Bill Gates used to take ‘think weeks’ in his cottage twice a year, during which he evaluated ideas submitted by his employees. Getting away from the day-to-day business helped him recharge while getting one of the most important business tasks done. Today, dozens of Microsoft’s big thinkers follow this pattern. These examples show that the merging has to go both ways to be healthy.

Some people have too much work; others have none. What's the solution?

BB When surveys ask people how much paid work they would ideally like to do (for a given hourly rate of pay), the unemployed and part-time employees say they would want more hours of employment, and full-timers say they want less; most people seem to converge on a four-day week as being optimal.  There is no sign that ‘market forces’ will take us any nearer to this favoured solution.  Competition in our careers for promotion and for material goods (eg houses) seems to create a very unhealthy inequality in the distribution of work.  We need a combination of regulations and intelligent policies to nudge us to a less unequal distribution of work.  But that’s not easy – policy makers and researchers are going to have to be smart to help solve this problem.

LF Revolution. 

This is a word which means importantly different things to different people.  But on any permissible understanding, it implies a fundamental change in the way we organise the economy and society – not just the adoption of various measures to mitigate the worst effects of the system we now have.

JM The distribution of work is – and always will be – an economic and societal challenge. As a management scholar, I can say that in organisations, when people work too much it is sometimes not the best solution simply to hire new people to distribute work more broadly. Often, too much work results from a lack of strategic focus – the ‘multi-loading’ I have described. People work day and night, because everything seems important to them and their managers give them a plethora of goals to meet. This diffusion in focus distracts – and sometime prevents – people from reaching the best outcome to the most important tasks. Therefore, the question for organisations is first why people do the work they do, and then how many people should do the work. The solution for people working too much is to stop doing what is not essential – but I have noticed that it is often very difficult for people to let go of tasks, in part because they feel bad about not finishing something they started, because the tasks are parts of cherished routines, or quite simply because the tasks are more easily and quickly accomplished than the more essential ones.

How might our ways of working change over the next 30 years - and will we be happier and healthier?

BB I think that there has been a slow, albeit erratic, improvement in the quality of employment over the past two generations, as the workforce has become better educated and more able to do more skilled work.  Recent economic crises have halted that progress, and increased job insecurity is a problem for many.  It’s important that we consider the sustainability of jobs if we expect people to work longer and retire later.  I’m optimistic that the quality of jobs can continue to improve if governments, employers and trade unions prioritise this over economic growth. We also need to pay attention to the impact of our working lives on the environment if we want a happy and healthy future.

LF Given the effect of our 'ways of working' on the planet – the devastating effects of man-made climate change which are already beginning to be felt – many people cannot expect to be alive in 30 years' time, let alone happier or healthier.

JM People have become healthier and, perhaps, happier over recent decades, so I hope this trend will continue. Whether it does, depends on us. There are big challenges that lie ahead. Meeting them together as a society rather than alone as individuals could provide a pleasant sense of collective progress for us all – but too often it seems as if only a few progress and others are left behind. If we found a way of working together more effectively and sustainably, and of distributing the outcomes of our work more fairly, I think we will get closer to the worthy goals of health and happiness.

Inset images from top reproduced with kind permission of: Michelle Dyerericnvntr, Chris Campbell, Kelly Sikkema, Matt Trostle via flickr

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page.