IN THE WAKE of the recent tragic death of an intern at Merrill Lynch in London – apparently from overwork – it’s worth asking why this long hours culture exists and is so prevalent. You can blame the recession if you like but this has been around since long before the recession.
Why do bosses think that attendance – being present at work – equals productivity? And why do employees go along with this completely idiotic notion?
Seems to me there are three reasons. Two of these originate from the culture of organisation as represented by the boss. The third comes from the employees.
In management jargon, the first is known as ‘capacity planning’. Picture this. Imagine you’re a one-man operation running a small garage, servicing/repairing cars. You will have some rule of thumb about how many cars you can work on every day. Let’s say it’s two.
Obviously this is a rough rule – cars can take longer or shorter and sometimes big jobs have to be done which can last several days. But, in general, the two cars a day rule of thumb works pretty well. It even allows some time for those inevitable walk-in clients or emergencies. In other words, you know your capacity.
It’s my experience that most organisations – especially high-tech and knowledge-based ones – haven’t the faintest idea what their capacity is. As a result, they just keep taking in work and passing it down the chain of command to the troops. The troops then work crazy hours in the vain hope of trying to clear an impossible mountain of work.
I have seen situations where the amount of stuff the troops were trying to clear was anywhere from one and a half to three times what their capacity was. Imagine if a one-man garage did that. It’d be out of business in three months.
‘No better way’
The second reason, quite simply, is that organisations feel that there is no better way. Most businesses operate a “system” to get their work done which revolves around pressure and aggressive targets. This system had evolved over many years. It is how they have always done things. And you know how it is with such systems.
Machiavelli put it well. He said: “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out nor more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to handle that to initiate a new order of things.”
So it is with these systems. They have evolved to the point where they’re highly refined. They serve us well. Why should we change them? In short, pressure works. Why change it? And what’s the alternative anyway? And the notion that there might be another solution, a solution based around blindingly simple ideas – like capacity – is too outrageous to contemplate.
Finally then, why do the employees sign up for this? Well, it’s because we don’t fight wars any more. Had we been living a thousand years ago, there is a fair chance that – depending on what situation we were born into – a lot of us would have spent some or all of our time fighting. Even a hundred years ago, a good proportion of the population was involved in the armed services. And not just for show – they fought and died. Men (mainly) and women did heroic things.
Maybe you know the expression ”a forlorn hope”. A forlorn hope was a group of soldiers chosen to take the leading part in a military operation, such as an assault on a defended position, where the risk of casualties was high. It was likely that most members of the forlorn hope would be killed or wounded.
A forlorn hope was typically led by a junior officer with hopes of personal advancement. You would have thought that there wouldn’t have been much enthusiasm to be part of a forlorn hope. As it turns out, the opposite was usually the case. If the officer leading the forlorn hope survived and performed courageously, he was almost guaranteed both a promotion and a long-term boost to his career prospects. As a result, despite the risks, there was often competition for the opportunity to lead the assault.
These days most of us don’t get to do things like that – at least not on a battlefield. But we often get offered such opportunities in work. And just as in the say, the Peninsular War, the lure is the same –”promotion and a long-term boost to his career prospects”. We carry on the way we do because:
- Most of us like the idea of being a hero;
- All of us like the idea of “promotion and a long-term boost” to our career prospects;
- All of us like to be on the winning team;
- Those of us who are senior enough like the idea of sending the troops off on a do or die mission.
Fergus O’Connell is a novelist and writer. His latest book is The Power of Doing Less: Why Time Management Courses Don’t Work and How to Spend Your Precious Life on the Things That Really Matter.