Work-Life Effectiveness Part I: Some Context

by julia.hanigsberg | March 19th, 2014

In this three-part blog series I’ll be taking a look at the issue of “Work-Life Effectiveness,” a topic I was delighted to recently be invited to speak about at a two-day conference on Women and Leadership in Technology. Part I will focus on research, part II on HR practices and some Ryerson experience, and in part III I’ll share my own personal priorities and reflections.

The Intensity of the Modern Workplace

There has been an enormous volume written on work-life complexity. Some recent research I found to ring particularly true comes from Linda Druxbury of Carleton University’s Sprott School of Management and Chris Higgins of the Richard Ivey School of Business. The two have been looking at workplace culture over the past 20 years. Their latest research focuses on work intensity–the “unremitting” quality and quantity of work many of us face or observe around us.

As Druxbury observes “We look at workload in two ways: Total time commitment, and the unremitting nature of work. As you rise in the organization, there are no breaks from work. You are not only expected to donate your work day to the organization but also your nights and weekends.”  According to their research more than one-third of those studied missed a day of work because they were emotionally or mentally fatigued and just couldn’t face going in. Arianna Huffington talks about her own struggle with this phenomenon of extreme burn-out. Sharing her story is important because many of our workplace cultures operate as if only wimps need sleep and time away from work!

The Technology Factor

What are some of the causes of this situation? According to Druxbury a major contributor is the proliferation of technology. How many of us can relate to the feeling that we are chasing our inbox and spending more time focused on what to do with email rather than thinking? According to Druxbury and Higgins the average person spends four hours on email each work day and two hours on off days. How do employees interpret the actions of a leader who checks her smartphone during a meeting? Or who sends out information for an 8 am Monday meeting Sunday at 11 pm? If that’s a description that sounds oddly familiar you might think you are projecting how busy and important you are. On the contrary, according to Druxbury, those leaders are seen “as someone who can’t get their act straight.”

The Too Lean Workplace and the Productivity Gap

Another contributor to the phenomenon is what Druxbury calls (somewhat unfortunately) “corporate anorexia”:

We have taken most of the fat out of the system. Most organizations I deal with are anorexic, and anorexia is lethal in the long term. So is not having enough staff to do the work or meet the expectations, or having too many expectations and number one priorities for the number of people you employ, both of which are huge predictors of work intensification.

We may have thought that technology would make our workplaces more efficient and reduce the number of people we need to carry out administration, but Druxbury’s research suggests what many in our workplaces have been telling us–we may have gone too far.

In their book Getting to 50/50: How Working Parents Can Have It All Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober make the argument that smart bosses will tell their employees to “go home.” They rely on countless examples, from nuclear to trucking accidents, the healthcare professions and Fortune 500 companies to demonstrate that working exhausted doesn’t lead to good quality work.

Similarly, Harvard Business School ethnographer Leslie Perlow has identified in her book Finding Time that the employees who work the longest hours don’t necessarily contribute more to corporate productivity. Her conclusion is that no one benefits from this behaviour–least of all the corporation. Her research led to an interesting experiment at the Boston Consulting Group where she successfully was able to work with teams to implement “predictable” time off, defined as time off at a known time regardless of whether the team’s work was done. The results were impressive and BCG implemented the approach across its global practice.

The Challenge

How do these employment practices impact happiness at the individual and national level? I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of happiness at work, and the United Nations’ World Happiness Report makes the case that the world needs to include human well-being as a component of economic and social development.

Intuitively we know that quantity and quality of work don’t equate–and there’s research that backs up this intuition. As individuals and leaders what can we do to see the difference and manage teams to excellence rather than volume despite the fire hose quantity/quality of the work we all seem to be doing?

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