Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Working harder not always working better

Published 28 November 2012 12:28, Updated 28 November 2012 12:29

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Working harder not always working better

Photo by Virginia Star There’s no glory in working longer and harder than everyone else to the detriment of your health.

Whenever I write about the lengthening hours of work and increased stress at workplaces, someone always points out that it is worse in the US, where they only get two weeks’ holiday a year.

Or, it is nothing compared with the workaholic habits in Singapore or Silicon Valley.

That may be true, but it doesn’t make it right to try to outdo unhealthy practices in other countries.

There’s no benefit in getting hard workers to work even harder, or longer. Productivity is certainly not dependent on ratcheting up stress levels and depriving people of a home life.

In fact, these things make people less productive if the work involves any creativity or invention. But, when you think about it, there aren’t many jobs that don’t require people to think of better ways to do things.

Longer hours and greater levels of pressure may cause people to sweep factory floors in less time, but they won’t help them think that the dropped bolt on the floor may have fallen off an important piece of equipment.

It won’t encourage them to seek out a supervisor to ask about the significance of the stray bolt and it may not stop an industrial accident from occurring when that piece of equipment blows up.

Decades of research shows us that productivity depends on innovation and that people are more creative, or innovative, when they have thinking time, when they are reasonably relaxed, and when they have a challenge and support from within their organisation.

Yet, Australia’s workforce is heading for a “well-being meltdown”, according to professional services company Towers Watson in its Global Workforce Study.

The study, which surveyed 32,000 employees worldwide, shows more than one in three Australian employees (35 per cent) say they are often affected by excessive pressure in their job.

Just over half (51 per cent) say they have been working more hours than normal over the past three years – and almost the same number (47 per cent) expect this to continue for the next three years.

Only half (53 per cent) say their stress levels at work are manageable.

Director of the organisational surveys and insights team for Towers Watson, Dr Adam Hall, says employees say they are overworked.

“The figures send a clear message that businesses need to be concerned for their productivity. Employers need to understand the factors that are causing stress and develop a sustainable engagement strategy.”

According to Towers Watson, increased stress leads to greater absenteeism and the rise of “presenteeism”, which both affect productivity.

In the four-week period before the survey was conducted, 32 per cent were performing “below par”, they told Towers Watson.

Only a third (33 per cent) of Australian employees reported that their organisations provided a healthy work environment, while just over a third (35 per cent) feel that their senior leaders support such policies. Other highlights are:

  1. Australian workers feel a need to display commitment to their jobs. In the past three years, over a third (39 per cent) of workers have not been taking as much holiday or personal time off.
  2. One in five employees (20 per cent) feel that the amount of work they are asked to do is unreasonable, and a quarter (26 per cent) believe their organisation is under-resourced.
  3. Organisations with low engagement produced an average operating margin of around 10 per cent while organisations with high sustainable engagement performed nearly three times better, with operating margins of more than 27 per cent.
  4. Australian results were broadly in line with those seen across Asia, the UK, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, with similar numbers of workers feeling that there was excessive pressure, longer working hours and fewer resources available in the workplace.