Working hours and productivity – the business and human conflict
Author: Peter Fullbrook
The purpose of this article is not to point out the fact that people are working longer hours and both the individual and the organisation suffer the consequences. It is to ask if this initial statement is valid and what can and is being done.
The figures are there and are put in front of us regularly. In Australia the ACTU produced a significant report showing that 81% of those surveyed work more than 40 hours per week, with 12% working more than 50 hours per European servey shows similar figures, with over 72% showing adverse effects on their personal lives. These types of statistics are neither new or startling (a worry in itself).
Everyone agrees there is a human cost. What about the commercial cost? Do organisations believe the cost is commercially unacceptable? Almost certainly not. Things that are agreed to be commercially unacceptable are rectified swiftly. Consider these two statements. The first is from a senior HR manager in a national retail organisation. “One person working inefficiently because of stress or tiredness is seen by our executive board to be better than none and cheaper than two.” The second comes from the CEO of a major Japanese car firm, who said to me recently, “I have two senior executives off long term with stress, what can I do about them?” When I suggested the level of work and stress might be the issue, not the individuals, I received a disbelieving look and was regaled by opinions about the ability to handle stress being a prized commodity amongst senior managers. This is not an individual example. Many feel they have to accept that economic success is all and there is a human cost for this.
It is essential to understand the backdrop to these attitudes. Fifty years ago organisations were by and large run by the board of directors, who lived in the community and saw their role as achieving a balance between acceptable corporate governance and acceptable profit. This is no longer the case. Since the advent of the corporate raider and the stock market being the altar of many, there is a singular focus on short-term profit at all costs. The cost of people to most organisations is measured in salary bill, not effectiveness and loyalty, therefore we measure one and not the other. The end result being we address one and not the other. This is not aimed at placing the blame purely at the feet of major industrialists. How many of the ‘Mom and Pop’ shareholders would agree to lesser dividends in return for reduced redundancies and healthier people?
Adding to the move towards ‘absolute capitalism’ is its perceived victory over world communism. We hear regularly of former communist countries being assisted with their move to a ‘free market economy’. All this shows that light, there is an ever-increasing Darwinian view that the workplace is somewhere where the fittest survive and some do not.
So is balance achievable and desirable? To make it desirable? To make it desirable we need to much more accurately measure the impact of current practices. Change is only desirable in the corporate world if it is done with a positive impact on. Business performance. As HR managers there is a need not just to measure but to correlate measures to financial performance (and customers). Can you measure the real cost if a high perfirmer leaves? Cost of recruitment as well as the length of tenure of an individual versus the investment made in them. Productivity measures need to be cost sensitive. Sears, the major US retail chain now spends significant time measuring employee attitudes and tracking them in conjunction with store performance. They have proven the relationship between the way they treat their staff/working hours and their behaviour and attitudes. They then assess the relationship between staff attitudes, customer feedback and store performance, knowing that is can be tracked to the bottom line.
Surveys also show the breaking bonds between organisation and employees. At a blue-collar level the attitude is one of ‘you abuse us, we abuse you’ and all that this implies. Where workers are managerial and more mobile and marketable the view is also more self focused, with people saying they are working long hours in order to get out before it kills them, either to ‘better’ jobs or career changes. We know less loyal, more cynical employees have a huge cost, but while it is not measured or costed, is will remain a subject for debate rather than a commercial imperative.
Like all good HR practices, the one that seeks to resolve the issues, commercial, social and personal, that have money and time invested in it shows a commercial return.