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Last Updated Wednesday June 21 2017 09:12 AM IST

Heal Thy Self | Work smart, not late

Nirmala Ferrao
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overtime3 Overtime (OT) is seen by most employers and employees as a fact of working life today. Credit: iStock

Heading for the lift at 6 has, for some time now, been viewed in work-places as the sign of a flunky mentality, someone who’s clearly not on their way ‘up’ in any sense of the word. Overtime (OT) is seen by most employers and employees as a fact of working life today. The assumption, of course, is that output increases in direct mathematical progression with the number of hours worked. That is, if someone produces, say, 16 units of output (physical or mental) in eight hours, (s)he will produce 18 units in nine hours and 20 units in ten hours.

Is that assumption valid? In a word, briefly. That is, it may be valid in the limited case where the hours of work are extended over a brief period, for example, to meet a looming deadline. You can get more work out of more hours for several days to a couple of months, depending upon how much longer the workday is.

But research and long experience have shown that the limits to such overtime spurts are reached sooner than most employers and employees realize. And when those limits are reached, the spurts turn into bogs. More than a century of studies – conducted by businesses, universities, industry associations and the armed forces – show that, over the long-term, useful work output is maximized at eight hours a day, five days a week. Productivity starts to drop very quickly upon the transition to 60-hour weeks (say, 10 hours a day, 6 days a week). The fall-off becomes obvious within a week... and just keeps sliding off the productivity cliff from there.

Way back in the early years of the 20th century, Henry Ford had conducted his own studies on the optimal workday. His research had nudged him to the inescapable conclusion that cutting the workday from ten hours to eight hours, and the work-week from six days to five days, increased output and reduced production costs. In the face of bitter criticism from the National Association of Manufacturers, Ford famously adopted his 40-hour work-week. And, before long, saw daily output increase, just as he had believed it would.

QOL’… Going, Going

But it is not just productivity figures that go into counter-productive mode with overtime. More important at the personal level is the fact that Quality of Life (QOL), including emotional health, begins to go into a slow but definite nose-dive when you take on that big, schedule-busting OT monster. At the bleary heights of Crunch Mode, not only have you lost all the gains those extra hours brought, you’ve also turned into one tired, angry, burned-out worker. Among the chief casualties:

Sleep. The evidence is overwhelming that OT is the most prominent thief of sleep. Even if you’re doing OT with a relatively low workload, there will be pronounced effects on your sleep patterns: problems of unwinding at bedtime, shorter sleep duration, daytime drowsiness. If you suffer sleep deprivation over a short term, you may be able to maintain accuracy on work tasks, but your speed will slow down.

overtime1 Even if you’re doing OT with a relatively low workload, there will be pronounced effects on your sleep patterns. Credit: iStock

The risks escalate with increased sleep deprivation. On the whole, the ability to do complex mental tasks degrades faster with sleep loss than does physical performance. Reducing sleep as little as one or two hours nightly can result in a severe decline in your mental functioning, sometimes without your being aware of the effects. For instance, in a study at the University of Pennsylvania, those who slept only six hours a night for 14 consecutive nights showed significant deficits in mental performance equivalent to going without any sleep for up to three days in a row. Yet these subjects reported feeling only slightly sleepy and were unaware of how impaired they were. As a report from the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. notes, “Coping mechanisms (such as physical activity or dietary stimulants like coffee) can temporarily make an individual completely unaware of a dangerous accumulated sleep loss.” 

Sleep deprivation among work personnel, including senior management in some cases, has been cited by official investigations as the reason for some of the world’s worst man-made disasters, among them the space shuttle Challenger explosion, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

In the context of the grave risks of sleep deprivation on the job, it is pertinent that several studies put India high up on the list of the world’s most sleep-deprived countries. 

Elevated levels of stress, anxiety and depression. No surprises here. Just a week of overtime with a higher workload, has been linked to the release of increased amounts of cortisol, the stress hormone. Studies have also found that the more OT, the greater the risk for higher levels of anxiety and depression among both, men and women; but even moderate overtime appeared to bump up the risk of “mental distress”. When stress rises, so do the risks of stress-related ailments, including high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes. This is what independent organizations like Verité have found in workplaces around the globe, including India and China.

Fatigue and safety dips. When daily fatigue gets eventually compounded by cumulative fatigue, a combination of slowdown and errors takes over, setting the stage for malfunctions that run the range from dippy goof-ups to spectacular failures – you may commit errors that blow schedules, create cost over-runs, trash valuable files, damage expensive equipment, or even – say, if you’re a plant worker – cause serious injury to yourself or a co-worker.

If there’s more than a century’s worth of research that Crunch Mode is grossly, destructively and expensively inefficient, then why are both employers and employees still opting to go – often hand-in-hand – down that precipitous incline? Well, don’t we already know why? For a species that vaunts the highest level of intelligence, homo sapiens can sometimes do the dumbest things.

Dealing With Workday Erosion

Putting in the occasional late hour(s) on the job has its place, let’s accept it. A power breakdown that throws things out of kilter, a deal about to be clinched with half an hour’s extra work, a meeting called to announce your assignment to an important project – these are worth staying in late for. But, while short bursts of intense work with overtime can be productive, and aren't always harmful, in the long run excessive hours are counter-productive.

Out-of-control OT is the kind you’re putting in either because you’re not managing your workload efficiently, or because you’re succumbing to pressure from a senior who thinks that every good employee must stay late, or because you lack the self-discipline to set proper boundaries between home and work, or simply because you’re thriving on the sense of self-importance you feel from working late or on weekends. And, of course, technology seems to be irresistibly driving the trend. Surveys find that between 35 to 50 % of adults say the Internet, email and cell-phones have increased their hours worked.

overtime2 At the workplace, work comes first. Try setting goals on an hourly schedule. Credit: iStock

But you can get back on track by shedding some old blinkers and developing a few new perspectives:

» Check it out: Where do your working hours go? Most people labour under a deluded perception: if a person is working late, (s)he must be doing fantastic work. More likely, what (s)he’s been doing is diddling around all day, lingering over a business lunch or having half-hour coffee-and-chitchat breaks. Add to that countless interruptions from – often personal, sometimes lengthy – phone calls, excursions to the water cooler, dropping in on colleagues on the way back – and you’ll see where your 8-hour day went. It was a victim to Workday Erosion. It’s no wonder then that your actual working day seems to begin only after everyone (except other inefficiency experts) has gone home. A study on 2,500 IBM managers found no correlation whatsoever between effectiveness ratings and the number of working hours put in. “It’s the quality of time put in,” noted the industrial psychologists who headed the study, “not the quantity.”

» Get your priorities crystal-clear. At the workplace, work comes first. Try setting goals on an hourly schedule. (“I’ll get this done before lunch, and that before the 3 o’clock meeting.”). Set up quiet times during the day for concentration on your work – and make them public. Yes, one of those hotel-room-style “Do Not Disturb” signs is perfectly in order.

» Identify snags in the office work-flow. And then take steps to ensure something is done about them. Meetings that run long, organizational red tape – these are the obvious kind of time-sapping snags. But there are less obvious productivity suckers that could be draining your time just as easily: e-mail spam or a disorganized work-desk, to name only two. There are ways of getting a handle on these common time-trippers. You’ve just got to get down to doing what it takes.

» Take a long hard look at those ‘crisis’ situations. If you find that you are being asked to stay late or work weekends far too often because a ‘crisis’ has blown up, take a long hard look at those ‘crises’. You may well find that senior staff is manufacturing regular crises.

» Flaunt your efficiency. When you make your departure in the evening, having put in a day’s hard work, don’t be apologetic or self-conscious about it. Talk up your time-management expertise. Make it known that, for you anyway, there is life after work. Even when it comes to occasionally swanning out of the office at 4 p.m. because it’s Annual Day at your daughter’s school and there’s no way you’re going to stay chained to your desk on that day… After all, there will always be many more working days on the calendar – but only that one chance to be there with your child on that special day.

overtime4 While a healthy stance on working hours means taking control of your life, which is bound to make you feel good, you should also be prepared and willing to accept some limitations on opportunities and accomplishments. Credit: iStock

» Be prepared to give (up) a little. While a healthy stance on working hours means taking control of your life, which is bound to make you feel good, you should also be prepared and willing to accept some limitations on opportunities and accomplishments. You may have to forego an exciting new project, be unable to take on another new client, or even have to accept that your rise up the ladder is likely to be steady rather than meteoric. You’ve got to be sure that this is the way you choose to live your life – otherwise you’re going to end up feeling conflicted.

(The author, a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, now works as a counselling therapist)

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