Give all your staff a real bonus - a No-Work Wednesday

December 19, 2003

The THES serves up six pages of reflections on some of the changes that have been making many people in our society feel increasingly anxious and frightened

Complaints about job satisfaction are rife because bosses take their overworked employees for granted, says Andrew Oswald, who offers advice on how to lighten their load

Feelings are an odd thing. In human beings they routinely get out of control. Despite the fact that we are now an extraordinarily wealthy society, there is a lot of genuine discontent. Happiness and job satisfaction surveys in the US show falling levels of reported wellbeing over the past few decades. In Britain, the numbers have run flat. What is going on?

Last week, I was invited to go to look at a huge organisation whose employees had reported low morale. The management wanted to know what to do about what their employees said was an awful long-hours culture and a work-life balance crisis. The original telephone call to do this came at a busy time during term for me. I was minded to tell them grumpily to go away, because I had enough of my own blinking work-life crisis thank you, and after all I am just a kind of researcher with my head in clouds of statistics, but the chap on the phone pleaded with me, so I said "OK".

One miserable wet day, he arrived at my office at 9am. I liked the chap immediately. Charm and honesty shone out of him, and I eventually agreed to look at the organisation. On instinct, I persuaded three of the cleverest ideas people I know to go along. One of them made me laugh when I told him that I chose him because he thought outside the box. "What box?" he said with a grin.

The funny thing is that once we got there, it seemed clear that the organisation did not have a straightforward long-hours culture - they all went home before 6pm. Yet these folk felt pretty awful about their jobs and the organisation did have a problem. But their policies for fixing it were missing much of the point. Workers' emotions were out of control: they felt anxious, harried and not valued. A pivotal point in the wrap-up meeting was when a member of my group, who for an hour had listened patiently and silently to all the extra tasks that this good-hearted and caring organisation had agreed to take on, turned to the chief executive and said simply: "Your organisation's inability to say 'no' is lamentable."

Universities are also full of dedicated people who feel they have a work-life balance problem. Much of this is not to do with their hours of work at all, but rather to do with a decline in how valued they feel.

Human beings report one problem but very often do not realise that it is something different causing a deeper trouble. It is often just the symptoms that get reported.

I think the lack of an upward trend in happiness surveys is partly because of the way we work today. Most of us officially do a 40-hour week. Yet the world gets increasingly complex, and in practice that headline figure is routinely misleading. According to the best estimate, about 2 million Britons put in more than 60 hours a week. That means the equivalent of a person working from 9am until 9pm, then going out for something to eat until 10pm, say, and then going back to the office for another stint - every weekday.

Anyone with a job knows the pressures of being an employee in modern society. Most of us would like to slow down but feel that we cannot do so because everyone else is working so hard. We get caught in a race to be promoted and to be thought well of and to do the right thing. All of a sudden, it feels like there are not enough hours to perform the job properly.

Technology has changed, too, and produced an extra twist. White-collar employees, who are the majority these days, are starting routinely to check their work email from home, and it seems likely that this trend will spiral out of control. Mobile phones are everywhere, and with the latest generation you can read your email while on the move. I have friends who are afraid to go on holiday because they cannot cope with the thought of 300 emails waiting when they return. Then there is the curse of the cc: far too many emails get copied to far too many people. Thanks to our technological inventiveness, the divisions between the workplace and the home are becoming blurred.

In a recent international survey, random samples of workers were asked about the amount of time they felt they were able to spend with their families. Strikingly, 46 per cent of Americans wanted to have much more time at home with the family. For the UK, the figure was 36 per cent. Other countries with big work-life imbalances included France, Portugal, Sweden and Russia.

Some parts of the world did much better. In Spain, only 8 per cent of workers wished for much more time with their families. In the Netherlands, where many company bosses go home at 5pm, the figure was 18 per cent said so.

Work-life difficulties are starkest among those in middle age. The desire for more family time peaks in a person's early 40s. Highly qualified people suffer particularly.

Research by Francis Green and colleagues has shown that the "intensification of work", as measured by reported levels of tiredness, grew through the 1990s, although it may have levelled off a bit recently.

Warwick University studies have shown that mental health scores worsened sharply among UK workers over the past decade. Job satisfaction levels have dropped in the US, too, in each of the previous three decades. In the 1970s, 56 per cent of Americans were very satisfied at work. In the 1980s, it was 52 per cent. In the 1990s, 47 per cent were.

Paradoxically, this is a problem with feelings. It is not an objective problem about facts. The facts show a working life for almost everyone in Britain that is far better than decades earlier. Jobs are safer, quieter, more interesting, less tiring - Jjust nicer.

How could working life and happiness be improved? First, a good principle would be to apply the scientific method. We need experiments. Employers - including universities - should take different parts of their organisation and bring in different possible attempts at a work-life balance solution.

For scientific reasons, one final part of the organisation should be left untouched - call it the placebo or control group.

Second, electronic communication plays a key part in the work-life balance crisis. One source of angst is the mobile phone. Another is email. My inclination would be to try banning each of them for a single day in random parts of the organisation. "Turn-off Tuesday" would be a suitable name.

Third, we could experiment with a strict rule that nobody is allowed to send an email to, or leave a message for, anyone who is taking their annual leave entitlement - ever.

Fourth, one-day holidays should be tried. Let's have a "No Wednesdays" rule for a part of the organisation. Yes, it sounds radical. But if workers were promised that they could have Wednesday off every week, very possibly they would get their week's tasks done anyway in the other days. They would also feel rewarded and valued.

Fifth, a further part of the organisation could be given freedom to stay at home as much as they wish - consistent with the key tasks getting done.

Sixth, organisations could and should produce internal publicity reminding their people of the good things being achieved. People desperately need to believe they are making a contribution and are of value.

Feelings cannot be controlled. In that sense, they are unmanageable. But we can make an attempt to understand human beings' feelings, and then harness that understanding.

Andrew Oswald is professor of economics at Warwick University.

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