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Burn Out or Flow Out? What a Choice!

This week we were thinking about work and how much is too much. I spend a lot of my working life poised between two extremes. At the stage of the business I am currently at, I am working hard to ensure that we grow, that we retain quality, that we add value to the bottom line. As the owner manager of a small business 70 hours is still fairly normal for me, though I’m pleased to say that I am now starting to factor in between half a day and a day a week to work on, as opposed to in, the business. That’s progress.

The other extreme (and we see this all the time in our business) is the employee who is informally performance managed and then goes off sick with stress in response, quite often aided and abetted by a doctor who provides a sick note . Why anyone should consider that their boss having a quiet chat with them about work performance concerns results in “stress” entitling the employee to take time off is beyond me. We’ve got at least two clients with employees who are seeking to elude being managed in this way at the moment. One even has the cheek to try and get an exit package with six months’ pay. It’s a curious response.

Attitudes to hours of work are curiously mixed. Bosses like employees who will go the extra mile for them. Sometimes that results in “presenteeism”. The worker might be physically at work. It doesn’t mean he’s doing all that much. At the same time employees who seek to preserve a work-life balance (which in some cases manifests itself as not doing very much at all) is becoming an everyday occurrence.

Work is good for you. That’s the official medical view. Research shows people who work past retirement age are healthier than those who give up their job. In a study for the DWP almost three-quarters of those who continued working aged 55 to 75 described their health as good, compared with less than half of those who had retired. Workers who have a satisfying job with a degree of responsibility enjoy better physical and mental health.

So far so good. But too much work can be too much of a good thing and it’s well-established that long hours cultures result in low productivity. How much is too much? Different individuals can tolerate different levels of workload. But even willing workers have their limits. I was once called in to investigate some peculiar and very uncharacteristic behaviour by an employee. It was obvious that something was badly wrong and when he was medically assessed it turned out that he’d had a breakdown. He was so ambitious that he had worked himself into this state (incidentally ignoring advice by the company to reduce the number of hours he worked). He never fully recovered.

Perhaps we should be looking at this differently. I would be happy if my team consistently gave me 110% in the hours they are there (limited chatting and no procrastination, just really focussed work!) and then went home. We should not be wrapping ourselves in cotton wool, nor should we be working ourselves to death. There is a middle way!

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