Ask the CHO: Fighting the cult of overwork in upper management

Ask the CHOStan has some questions about the cult of overwork:

1) When/where did the cult of overwork start? Or has business/marketing/office work always been a race towards more & more hours?

2) Upper management at our company work 6+ days a week, have sacrificed their family lives for the past 15 years to build the company, and in general are not a fun bunch. Is it worth trying to change the corporate culture one step at a time, or should we just give up?

Thanks for the great questions, Stan. Here’s what I think.

1) The cult of overwork started with the industrial revolution. Before this when socities were based around agriculture people worked far less and had much more time for families and play. In fact you might argue that play and work were much more integrated activites and both were seen as necessary for life and learning.

It then got worse over the last 50 years as the contract of work changed. It used to be “The company buys X hours of you time for Y dollars” but in the pot-industrial world of work a company needs and wants more from us than just X hours.

The clearest expression of the cult of overwork is Max Weber’s work The Protestant Work Ethic. According to this, work is unpleasant and so it should be because hard work is good for the soul. Also, life is hell and we’ll all get our reward in heaven.

Of course today it has gotten to the point where people often work so much that it impedes results, yet corporate culture remains totally blind to the fact that many people get more work done in 40 hours a week than in 80.

2) This is a classic problem: Upper management have sacrificed their lives to their work and expect everyone else to do the same. Even the people who can prove that they do more work in less hours are expected to overwork.

I have no handy solution to this. Some executives wake up to this fact eventually, even though some of them need to face heart attacks or open stomach ulcers first. It is completely irrational to focus on the hours instead of the results and if you went by results only, most people would not be working 60-80 hours a week.

The only solution that reliably works is to leave and go work for a company that gets it. There are plenty of those around.

If you want to stay in your current company and try to fix things here, I recommend this approach:

  1. Speak upper management’s language. They may not care much about work-life balance but I’m sure they care about money lost to high absenteeism, stress and employee turnover. These things can cost companies millions.
  2. Say you have a plan to address all of this and increase productivity. Calculate the potential savings for the company.
  3. Don’t start witht the whole organization – do a pilot project in one department that’s open to the idea. Have them work 40 hours a week for, say, three months and see what happens. This pilot could even be done without upper management’s approval if you can get the department head on board.
  4. Make sure to measure the outcome on relevant parameters.
  5. Show management the great results and argue that these could be applied to the entire company.

Does that sound useful?

4 thoughts on “Ask the CHO: Fighting the cult of overwork in upper management”

  1. There is was a great article in Time Mag or Fortune Mag on this and how many have this problem and how if the balance is too skewed only bad things happen and nothing good comes from it. They should have it online, check their archives.

  2. Thanks for replying to my question — good info.

    The problem with my job — 90% of the time it is fun, challenging, etc. But the demands put on frontline staff is frustrating.

    One policy in particular has always bugged me:
    Company policy that forbids “personal business” during work hours — but at the same time, requires us to be reachable & ready to work beyond 9-5 at a moment’s notice.

  3. You’re welcome Stan.

    And what a silly policy. Sounds like management at your company need to read The Seven-Day Weekend by Ricardo Semler where he asks questions like “If you can answer business-related email on a sunday evening, why can

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