The way we work now
We work fewer hours, yet feel busier than ever. We've learned new skills, but must complete more tasks. A new series starting today examines Ireland's changing workplaces
Don’t tell your boss, but we are living in an age of a historically short working week. The average Irish male works 12 hours less a week than his counterpart did 60 years ago. What’s more, Ireland has one of the shortest working weeks in the EU.
But anyone who has answered an office email after midnight, or whose weekend is taken up with prepping for a Monday-morning appointment, will know that some statistics are lies.
Behind the averaged figures are plenty of overworked employees as well as people who are working fewer hours but not by choice. Underemployment, especially in manual services, is a particular feature of the recession in Ireland.
What’s more, even if you are working marginally fewer hours than your peers of yesteryear, there are reasons it doesn’t feel like that.
“Even though people are spending less time at work, the boundary between work and non-work has become blurred over time,” says Bill Roche, Professor of Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the UCD School of Business. “You might say the hand of the employer has managed to reach further into people’s family and non-work time than would have been the case two decades ago.”
Add to this the burden of commuting times. While it has levelled off since the recession began, the average worker still spends almost nine days each year getting to and from work. That’s not to mention time spent on upskilling and networking, or the impact of technology which has made the notion of “clocking out” virtually redundant.
It’s a long way from the 15-hour week John Maynard Keynes predicted in the 1930s. Within a century, he said, living standards in “progressive countries” would be between four and eight times higher. Work, he believed, would be displaced by leisure.
But what Keynes and his disciples didn’t count on was people’s attachment to ever-increasing living standards.
“If you look at the big cycles of working time reduction, they have actually occurred at times of recession,” says Roche. “At times of economic growth or rising living standards, the pattern has not been one in which people take more time off work or demand reduced hours; people become very accustomed to living standards and progressivity, and the lure of leisure seems to get buried or subdued in that process.”
The main factor behind the reduction in average working hours over recent decades is the increased participation of women in the workforce and the growth, in tandem, of part-time, job-share and temporary employment arrangements. In the same period, there have been other positive developments for workers, from increased wages to improved employment rights.
But there has also been an erosion of traditional career patterns and, says Roche, “the distribution of working time has become more corporatised; more people are working shifts and on weekends, or on call.”
“The biggest buzzword now is ‘engagement’,” says Dr Melrona Kirrane, an organisational psychologist at DCU Business School. “Engaged workers will give themselves to the task; they will go the extra mile, meet more difficult deadlines and hit higher targets and will end up more satisfied because they are more engaged in their work.”
That’s the theory. In truth, she says, “there are a lot of contradictory messages. The gun is to your head and you’d better be engaged or you will be out the door.
“So you have a higher amount of work intensification going on. And there’s a big difference between employees who are saddled with debt versus younger ones who can bounce around the world at the drop of a hat.”
The fallout can be seen in work-related stress – estimated to affect more than a quarter of employees and to cost the economy €200 million a year, according to a report late last year for the Health and Safety Authority. A culture of being “always on” has become normal in certain professions, and “it raises the demand for everybody,” says Kirrane (who answers an email from this newspaper at 1.05am).
An additional threat is “toxic leadership” and, she says, companies need to be careful not to let management standards slip because of the recession. “It can be found at any time but it’s possible destructive leaders could become more destructive because the context is so difficult and they can’t see the trail of destruction in their wake. All they are thinking is: ‘Look, I am keeping all these people in their jobs’.”
Placing the current workplace strains in a broader context, Roche says: “Job skill and job autonomy on average are rising in Ireland; that is the bright side. But the darker side is there is also evidence that the intensity with which people have felt they have been required to work has risen significantly.”
Moreover, increased autonomy can sometimes seem like an illusion. While people are freer to organise their work, their performance is more closely managed. As Kirrane puts it: “You have so-called empowered workers but you are only empowered until it blows up in your face and then you are to blame.”
Roche points out that the trends towards increased flexibility and doing more for less “are coming anyway” regardless of the recession. Last year, with researchers at UCD and Queen’s University Belfast, he conducted a major survey of human resources practices in the recession, surveying more than 400 managers in a range of public and private companies, including Irish Life and Permanent, Sherry FitzGerald and Ericsson.