In our last blog, we set out what might be called the ‘productivity paradox’ – the fact that, despite what many people in this country are programmed to believe, pushing yourself to work longer and harder does not actually make you, your business or the economy any more productive.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
Taking a pseudo-mathematical approach, we also asked what might be the optimum balance between time/effort in work and peak productivity, and made the case argued by experts in this field that the idea solution would be a four-day working week.
But in the absence of any indication that the majority of businesses, or indeed the government, are likely to take the enlightened path to a four-day week any time soon, what can you do in practical terms to avoid the inevitable burnout that comes from being over-worked?
Ultimately, that is what we are talking about when we look at Britain’s productivity problem – burnout. Yes, in gross terms output remains high because people work such long hours. But it is an extremely inefficient approach and serves to curb opportunities for further growth. When people cannot work any longer or harder, where do we go?
Sadly, the people who matter, i.e. the bosses and policy makers, aren’t listening. In keeping with the grit-your-teeth-and-bare-it austerity approach, the strategy for getting us out of the decade-long economic slump we find ourselves in has been to push people to work longer and harder, rather than smarter.
In 2015, the TUC reported a 15 per cent increase in people working more than 48 hours a week. It would be nice if that had been accompanied by a 15 per cent growth in the economy, but we all know that is definitely not the case. Working harder and longer is what people have to do to scrape by, running faster to stand still, with no recognisable advantage to anyone. All it is likely to do is to lead to extra strain on an already creaking NHS through more stress and sickness, and waste resources in recruitment as unhappy workers switch jobs more frequently.
But enough of the doom and gloom – if you agree that you and the people you work with are on the edge of burnout, you don’t have to accept it as the status quo. You can be the driver of positive change, both for yourself and your colleagues, and you get to feel smug about it when a happier, more content and more relaxed workforce starts to have a positive impact on productivity.
Here are some things you can do to get started.
Learn to be flexible
Remember that story about Sports Direct warehouse workers who were docked wages if they clocked in a minute late? That is an extreme example of an authoritarian work culture that expects people to be at peak productivity every minute of their eight, nine or 10 hour shift. The human brain just doesn’t work like that. To function at our best, we need down time, diversions, and breaks from routine.
What is more, people have lives outside work. Why begrudge that doctor’s appointment, or the fact that someone needs to leave early to collect their children? Why penalise people for being stuck in traffic jam, doubling their misery? Punishing people for having priorities and responsibilities outside work, not to mention for things they cannot control, just creates antagonism and resentment. Show you are willing to give a little, and people will give that much more in return.
Give people a reason to believe
It is no great secret that happy workers are more productive workers. And while very few of us are lucky enough to work in our dream job, actually our expectations for being content at work are much more mundane. The Harvard Business Review printed an influential article on the criteria that make people enjoy work, highlighting six pretty straightforward things like keeping people informed of key developments affecting the business, listening to their opinions, and being fair with rules.
In short, people want to feel valued at work, as they do in all works of life. They want to like the people they are working for and with, and believe they are doing something worthwhile. Simply creating an environment where people can have this kind of positive mindset is enough to stave off the worst excesses of burnout.
Encourage personal growth
This ties in with the importance of being valued at work, but can be a difficult balancing act for employers. Company bosses might quite justifiably argue that their first priority is the success of the business, and everything their employees do has to be with that higher purpose in mind. Which is fine, except it often leads to staff being treated like drones, being asked to perform monotonous, repetitive tasks which serve as a useful cog in the company machinery, but which are likely to bore the individuals involved to a state of burnout.
People are like mini-businesses in their own right, they have their own goals, priorities and measures of success. When you form a partnership with another business, it is done on the tacit understanding that you align the strategic objectives of the two organisations. If more companies could approach employment with the same mindset and say to employees, let’s see where your ambitions and ours can complement one another, workplaces would be much happier in general.
People will accept working harder if they can see an advantage in it for them. At the same time, businesses can benefit from the creativity, innovation and increased productivity that comes from an energised, entrepreneurial workforce.