A Hard Day's Work


Author Graeme Russell

In his first piece for Manhood Online, Special Adviser on Men and the Corporate World, Graeme Russell looks at the culture of working long hours. Why do so many men work such long hours? Is it worth it? Are there better ways to get the work/family balance right? And how many men do you know who on their death bed said "Damn, I wish I'd spent more time at the office."?
Ideas are changing about the challenges men face in achieving a satisfactory balance between their commitments to paid work and their family/ personal lives. Work/family balance was once seen to be a women’s issue and it was considered inappropriate for employees to raise issues about their family or personal lives at work. It was commonly assumed this was a private matter and that employees had a responsibility to manage their personal lives so that they did not interfere with their jobs.

My experience in working in the community and in organisations is that there is a growing acceptance that work/life balance is a key issue for men, their families and for organisations.

An increasing number of men are raising concerns about work/family balance in the workplace. This includes (i) younger men who have partners and young children who are feeling the pressures of expectations about long hours and career progression, coupled with the demands of family life and their own desire to have a quality, balanced life; and (ii) men who want to phase into retirement through part-time work. Indeed, there is a growing tension in the workplace between young fathers who want a better balance and older ‘traditional’ male managers.

A key focus for achieving change in the workplace to enable men to achieve the work/family balance they want is on shifting the emphasis away from:

    • hours worked and the assumption that hours = productivity;
    • practices that reinforce ideas that presence = performance; and
    • that the key to success in the corporate world is putting in long hours.
In surveys I have conducted in several organisations, over 50% of senior managers agree that those who work long hours get more opportunities for promotion and that their company rewards people who put their jobs ahead of their families.

Figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that the average hours worked each week by full-time employees increased from 40 to 42 from 1981 to 1993. The proportion of employed men working more than 49 hours a week also rose from 19% to 27%.

There is an expectation that employees should be available to work outside of regular hours when demands require it, and for many this happens on a fairly regular basis. Thus, companies expect employees to be able to adjust their family and personal commitments in order to get the job done (and, the focus is on getting the job done rather than on hours).

The reverse process -- being able to adjust work commitments in order to fulfill family or personal demands appears not to be as readily accepted by companies. There is not always a response in kind by managers and supervisors for the adjustment to family and personal life made by employees. In surveys I have conducted in organisations, a consistent finding has been that fewer than 50% of male employees believe that their company cares about the impact the demands of their jobs have on family life.

One of the common solutions suggested for this problem to enable employees to achieve a better balance is to provide greater flexibility. When considering options for increased flexibility and a more family-friendly workplace, it is common to think about:

    • Varying times for starting and ending work
    • Being able to take a couple of hours off during the day (for family reasons) and then make this time up by working later.
    • Being able to take time off in lieu when extra hours have been worked.
    • Developing a formalised policy to ensure consistency in: when and how work hours can be adjusted, and the reasons why the adjustment is made (e.g., take a child to a doctor's appointment).
A major problem with this approach, however, is that it still emphases hours worked and often serves to reinforce further ideas that presence=performance and does nothing to question the assumption that the key to success is putting in long hours.

An alternative approach is to focus simply on performance and on getting a high quality job done. Thus, the trade-off for taking a couple of hours to attend to a family matter would be ensuring the job is done. This could involve making up the hours or it might not.

A concern sometimes expressed about this approach is that it will lead to people not putting in the expected hours, doing the bare minimum and not offering to do more. Another possible concern is about equity. This system could lead to increased tension between members of workgroups because some will resent the greater flexibility that others are able to achieve. The focus needs to be on developing an equitable system that encourages people to work effectively and creatively and to look for ways to add value and improve their performance.

When pushed to consider alternatives and to focus on the quality of work and productivity (e.g., if you can get your job done effectively in 30 hours, is it all right to leave) workgroups develop creative solutions. Following is the set of principles established by a diverse group of men in a workshop.

In practice, the general principles for deciding when (hours) and where (company vs home) work can be done should be:

    • All are expected to work a minimum of 40 hours per week averaged over a three month period.
    • This should be monitored at the department not the individual level -- trust has to be the foundation of the system of flexibility.
    • The actual hours worked are not considered important. Meeting performance criteria is the critical issue.
    • When and where you work should depend on: your job/role commitments and responsibilities and ensuring that service delivery criteria are met.
Evaluating your own situation:

What are the expectations about working hours?

Is too much emphasis placed on the need to work long hours to demonstrate commitment? (You also need to ask yourself whether you are an attendaholic!)

How much control over your working hours do you currently have?

What are the major barriers to exercising this control?

Are people working long hours simply for the sake of being seen to do this?

Are the hours being worked too high?

Does this reduce my effectiveness and the effectiveness of others I work with (and especially managers)?

Should your employer have a considered position on hours of work, especially given the research that shows that the most effective and successful people are those who have a satisfactory balance between paid work and family life?

What are the minimum hours – is it 40, 45 or 50?

Are there other more effective and creative ways of getting your job done?

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