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Give Us a Break: The New Working Day and Work-Life Balance

Jun 9, 2008
We often hear reports of the costs to British industry of employee sick days, the implication being that we're a nation of skivers. A new survey looking at individual working hours gives us a clue as to why so many people need to take to their beds every few months.

Three quarters of UK business people now regularly work up to an extra three hours a day on top of their contracted hours, according to research carried out by Crowne Plaza Hotels & Resorts during May 2008. Rising pressure on workers and the impact of new technology means that many now make themselves available to the office 24/7, even during holidays.

So with the traditional nine-to-five becoming obsolete in the white-collar world, what effect is this having on employees and their personal lives? What of the much-hyped work-life balance? Most companies pay lip-service to it in employee handbooks but what is happening in reality?

It seems that personal workloads have increased significantly over the last ten years. The introduction of email, laptops and personal computers, mobile phones, BlackBerries and personal digital assistants (PDAs) means that an employee is always contactable.

Crowne Plaza's survey of more than 1,500 business people in the UK showed that just one fifth of people switch off completely when they leave work and the remainder can't help checking emails when they have left the office. One in three of those questioned make themselves available 24 hours a day.

The report found that 62 per cent of business people have gone to bed with their BlackBerry or mobile phone so they do not miss an important work email or call. And shockingly, a quarter snuggle up with their PDA every night.

Working women work the longest hours if domestic and paid employment are taken into account, a recent study by Cambridge University revealed. The survey of more than 30,000 people for the EU's ongoing European Working Conditions Survey confirmed that most women working part-time or full-time still do the majority of domestic tasks including cleaning, cooking and childcare in addition to long hours at work.

Many business people make the decision to take work home with them so they can spend some precious time with their families. It is now common for men and women to leave the office at a respectable time so that they can have dinner with the children, do bath and bedtime and then settle down to a few hours more work. At least they've got the comfort of their sofa and a nice glass of wine. But is this a healthy lifestyle?

Working long hours often encourages people to turn to caffeine, alcohol and nicotine more than they usually would. Research carried out over the years underlines the risks associated with routinely working long hours. These include tiredness; stress; health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, depression and diabetes; generally being run-down; lack of interest in sex; and a negative impact on relationships with partners, children, friends and colleagues.

A poll published by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) in 2007 highlighted the extent of the problem in the United States. It showed that prolonged working days were causing Americans to fall asleep or feel sleepy at work, drive when drowsy and lose interest in sex. According to the Sleep in America survey those questioned spent an average of almost 4.5 hours a week working at home on top of a 9.5 hour average working day.

Crowne Plaza's research showed that people working away from home on business actually considered their hotel room a refuge from work and a place to relax.

"Anyone who works in today's business world knows we all put in more than the now redundant nine-to-five, but doubling your working day is quite shocking," said Chris Hale, spokesperson for Crowne Plaza and IHGA's Vice President Marketing & Communications EMEA.

"For many of us, business travel is a big part of our lives - and longer working hours comes with the territory. But it is also very important to know when to switch off and recharge your batteries.

Airport hotels in particular provide an invaluable escape for business travellers and allow them to relax and recuperate between flights. An overnight stay at an airport hotel helps to remove the temptation to drive when overly-tired. The NSF's poll found that 36 per cent of respondents have nodded off or fallen asleep whilst driving; 32 per cent have driven drowsy once or twice a month; and 26 per cent drive whilst drowsy during the working day.

"Nearly 50 million Americans chronically suffer from sleep problems and disorders that affect their careers, their personal relationships and safety on our roads," said Darrel Drobnich, NSF acting chief executive officer.

"Longer workdays and more access to colleagues and the workplace through the Internet and other technology appear to be causing Americans to get less sleep. Reciprocally, the effects of sleep loss on work performance are costing US employers tens of billions of dollars a year in lost productivity. It's time for American workers and employers to make sleep a priority."

Drobnich makes the point here that employers everywhere should listen to. Allowing employees to do the work of three people may look like value for money in the short-term but the long term effects are less desirable: a damaging long hours culture, with some playing on Facebook at the office until 9pm just to look indispensable; staff feeling unable to take days off when genuinely sick and so spreading infection; employees reluctant to take holidays because of the work they will need to catch up on; stress and conflict in the workplace; impaired work performance; and ultimately huge losses in productivity.

Is it really worth it?
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