Destructive culture of long hours

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There has, in the 1990s, been increasing emphasis on the fact that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Yet 81 per cent of managers continue to work more than 40 hours a week and almost a third work more than 50 hours, according to "The Quality of Working Life", a study by the Institute of Management and University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology.

This five-year research study has been tracking managers' experiences since 1997. In their third annual report, Professors Les Worrall and Cary L Cooper found that almost six in 10 of the 1,213 executives surveyed valued their work and home life equally, while the number who see their home life as more important had grown from a quarter to a third since the study began. Indeed, concern about the damaging effects of long hours has increased dramatically since the study began.

Most executives (87 per cent - up 10 points on last year) say working long hours leaves them with no time for other interests, and almost as many say it affects their relationship with their children (up 13 points). More than three-quarters find it also affects relationships with partners and say it is damaging their health. Over two-thirds find that long hours adversely affects their productivity.

According to the authors, these findings should act as a much-needed wake-up call to employers. Only 15 per cent of the executives say that their organisation attempts to help them balance work and home commitments and well over half believe that their employers expect them to put in long hours. Yet executives worrying about their family relationships, suffering from damaged health and too tired to be fully productive are unlikely to perform well or be good decision-makers.

The survey found that organisational change is the biggest cause of the long-hours culture. Professors Worrall and Cooper show that this has a damaging effect on managers' motivation, morale, loyalty and feelings of job security. Two-thirds of managers have been affected by organisational change in the last year - even more than in the preceding two years. The extent of restructuring is highest in PLCs, followed by public-sector organisations, and least in family-owned businesses and partnerships. The main forms of change are cost reduction, followed by culture change, redundancies, closure of sites, expansion into new markets, use of temporary staff and out-sourcing.

Unfortunately, conclude the authors, board directors seem unaware of the dire effects of many of their decisions. They comment: "In previous reports, we have shown that the impact of change has been far from positive, that it has had some unintended consequences and that managers at different levels within the organisation have had radically different perceptions of its impact."

For instance, directors believe that their organisational changes have made decision-making faster, but all management levels disagree. Most managers believe that key skills and knowledge have been lost, but directors do not.

The schism between board members and managers is even wider when it comes to assessing the impact of change on employees. While most chairmen, chief executives and managing directors saw loyalty, morale and motivation as having increased, with a small loss of job security, scores recorded by senior, middle and junior managers on all four measures were strongly negative.

The fact that boards appear to have ignored the perceptual gap between themselves and their managers first reported in 1997 is extreme cause for concern. Boardroom complacency must be tackled if a balanced - and consequently more productive - working life is to be achieved.

`The Quality of Working Life - 1999', from the Institute of Management (0171-497 0580), costs pounds 40.