Divorce, depression and burnout: the price paid for working excessively long hours

`Optimal busyness` dangerously skews people’s perceptions of their workload

Keeping tabs on how employees spend their time has been an obsession for the corporate world since Henry Ford introduced the assembly line in 1913 to exert more control over his workforce. Professional firms that make their money on billable hours have taken this accountability to a whole new level and working weeks of 60 to 80 hours are commonplace.

Consistently putting in excessively long hours or constantly feeling the need to be working flat out is not neutral. It’s bad for us. In fact, Ioana Lupu, an associate professor at the ESSEC business school in Paris, believes that what she calls “optimal busyness” is a dangerous pursuit that skews people’s perceptions of their workload and ends up sabotaging their efforts to achieve a work-life balance.

Collateral damage includes burnout, divorce, health problems, depression and becoming dependent on alcohol and prescription drugs.

Lupu has looked in some depth at how professionals in senior roles, primarily in financial services and law firms, see their workload. She interviewed them several times over an extended period and found that they are often drawn into optimal busyness by a corporate culture that charges its clients by the hour and at a personal level by the buzz of periods of fast-paced intensive work.

What makes the process problematic is that optimal busyness is “a fragile and fleeting state [which is] difficult to achieve and maintain,” Lupu says, adding that when it is interrupted or stops, people often struggle to cope and anxiety and depression are common manifestations of the vacuum. As one partner in a professional firm interviewed by Lupu put it, “You become a little bit of a junkie for a deadline and for work. It’s quite hard to switch off.”

Those caught up in a busy professional environment often dismiss the long days and weekend work as simply part of the job. But Lupu doesn’t buy that. She says employees can be equally culpable in allowing themselves to be seduced by the notion that “always on” is good. She found that even when people agree to change aspects of their overworking behaviour, they rarely do it.

It is in organisations’ interests to instil an expectation of long hours in its employees and to underpin it with control tools such as performance reviews and time sheets. However, it is employees who pay the price in terms of losing contact with daily life outside the office, not spending time with their kids and becoming socially disconnected.

The kicker, which is obviously dependent on sector, is that while employees might feel under pressure to put in the hours, research conducted by Boston University showed that managers could often not differentiate between those working long hours and those pretending to.

For some it can be a short walk from continually burning the midnight oil to “workaholism”. Unlike other forms of addiction, Lupu says, workaholics are generally praised and rewarded for working excessively.

“Rewards, such as bonuses or promotions for showing commitment and availability through working long hours, are a central part of the control system that aligns the behaviour of employees with the goals of the company,” she says. “Rewards act as ways to reinforce excessive work behaviours by making employees feel valued and productive.”

Lupu breaks optimal busyness into three constituent parts – pace, focus and length. Pace is about drive. It’s good for business and those that continually push hard enjoy the adrenaline highs and the feeling of being energised. Focus is about absorption and periods of intense concentration which are good for productivity and for the individual involved as the time flies. However, absorption can create domestic issues if it means someone forgets to phone home or remember a birthday.

Length is potentially more destructive as it’s about people fooling themselves into thinking that their busyness is short term when in reality they simply go from one project to the next without taking their foot off the accelerator.

“I would say that people fantasise about their busyness being short-term,” Lupu says. “They fantasise about the holidays they are going to take or the weekend breaks, but in reality they often cut their holidays short to cope with a work emergency or they continue doing bits of work even though they’re supposed to be on holiday.” If that’s what regularly happens, and Lupu found from her interviews that it does, then her advice is to get smarter at planning a break.

“Choose a time when there is likely to be the minimum possibility of disruption and stick to your plan,” she says. “If a new project suddenly turns up don’t automatically jump at it unless it meets both your career and personal priorities. Step back and practise some ‘life hygiene’. Look at what’s important in the longer term and what other areas of yourself – your health, your sleep – and your life – your partner, your friends, your kids – you are neglecting if you’re never there or your attention is always somewhere else.”

Big businesses and professional firms thrive on action and intense periods of activity go with the territory. What Lupu is flagging is the problems created when organisations refuse to accept that the flip side of peaks is troughs.

“Our study shows that in order to feel in control of their time, professionals routinely overwork. But people need rest periods to recharge mentally and physically and organisations or individuals that only ‘do’ peaks will burn out,” she says.