New research suggests that long working hours are killing 745,000 people every year. Faced with such huge statistics, what can one individual do to make a change? In this article, we take on that very question.
The ripple effect
Each evening, the pace of the world changes. As the last rays of daylight fade, birdsong becomes less frenetic and the air takes on a fresher quality. The bustle of the day draws to a close and the mind lends itself to a period of reflection.
This tends to be when I take Peggy - my hyperactive border terrier - out for a walk. As she bounds through fields and puddles, we wander past a telephone wire that stretches out into the distance. The line is filled with settled birds, stretching out across the horizon. Occasionally, I feel as though the tranquil scene requires a little disruption. Alone in an empty field, I clap my hands together. Peggy barks. The noise carries across the field, until it is sensed by the first bird on the wire.
That’s where the movement starts. One bird reacts to that unexpected clap, then another, then another. A mini-murmuration starts to play out above our heads, shifting and swarming across the dusky sky. A spectacular movement, perfectly coordinated.
All this from a single clap. No prior warning. And an enormous swell of activity.
A beautiful ripple effect.
I was strangely in awe of my ability to change the scene in front of me through such an seemingly inconsequential act.
Our ability to affect change is something we often underestimate. Often, we don't believe it's ever within our power. Particularly in the world of work, we cede control of our days, our time and our attention to forces outside of ourselves. Work becomes something that happens to us, rather than something we affect.
Questioning our working practises seems to be futile. Why even bother? After all, there’s no point in swimming against the tide.
A stark warning
This week has provided a very good reason to question our relationship with work. On Monday, the WHO (World Health Organisation rather than Townsend & Co.) released a first-of-its-kind study that stated long working hours are killing 745,000 people a year. Clearly the headline was designed to be inflammatory. However, the underlying data was stark. The research found that working 55 hours or more a week was associated with a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 1% higher risk of dying from heart disease, compared with a working week of 35-40 hours.
We are all familiar with the same old story. Put the hours in. Get the reward.
No matter how compelling the data, how persuasive the logical arguments, there remains an almost irresistible pull towards long hours. It’s a badge of honour. And those who don’t play the game feel a sense of impotence as the familiar roll call of clichés are wheeled out:
“Yeah - but that’s the way it is.”
“Our clients expect it.”
“If we don’t do it someone else will.”
“My team needs me to be constantly connected otherwise things will get held up.”
On the surface of it, these are valid points. And we tend to buy into the concept of hard work and long hours resulting in fair reward. Not to be connected is not to care enough.
Indeed, I had a recent conversation with someone who felt this sense of helplessness on a daily basis. She insisted that she could not take any time away from being connected. If she did, the knock-on effect would be that others would lose work, her job would be at risk and the negative ripple effects were unthinkable. The only solution was to adhere to the rules of a game that someone else had designed.
Stay constantly alert in case her expertise was needed.
Day or night.
A few moments later, it was casually dropped into conversation that the previous evening, she was so exhausted that she fell asleep at 7pm on the sofa, waking at 1am and sluggishly having to traipse from living room to bedroom to continue a disrupted night’s sleep. She admitted that this accounted for her lack of mental acuity during our conversation.
That break she was unwilling to take had ultimately taken her. It was inevitable. Her body knew what her mind refused to countenance.
Breaks from a long hours culture will come. They will be needed.
It’s a question of whether we embrace them or not.
Breaks are for the weak
Yet those who call for a change are often dismissed as slackers, fantasists or worse. Throw in the idea that we should simply be grateful to have a job, then it seems that a long-hours culture will persevere.
We’re unwilling to try and change the status quo for a wealth of reasons too numerous, surreptitious and pervasive to mention here. Suffice to say it’s endemic, celebrated and cemented into our psyches despite the damage it does.
Right now, we find ourselves left standing in the dust kicked up during the activity of Mental Health Awareness Week. Businesses boldly announce well-meaning initiatives to reduce hours, limit communication and place their people front and centre. Yet barely hours pass and these schemes have already groaned under the weight of cynicism as the state of play returns to normal. Emails start to flood in and the unrealistic expectations of ourselves and our teams rise again.
We become a victim of our own hubris when we make loud announcements. The lasting effect of failed pronouncements is an unwillingness to even try to improve things when the opportunity arises.
It’s little wonder that we settle back into our familiar, damaging patterns.
The power of quiet action
One hypothesis is that we are too quick to make announcements about change, and too slow to execute the actions needed.
We are capable of prompting significant change, without the need for social fanfare or LinkedIn announcements. Through the power of sure-footed action, quietly implemented, we can turn the tide. We severely underestimate our ability to do this.
Whilst reading Cal Newport's excellent book - A World Without Email - I stumbled across a fantastic, understated concept about how to approach change.
"So many good ideas are a good idea in the abstract but degraded under the friction of real-world application. Some experiments are best executed quietly."
This is the power of quiet action.
Unannounced, modest measures that can change perceptions once other people have experienced their effects first-hand. This is in contrast to grandly stating our ambitions and falling embarrassingly short.
Quiet experiments can alleviate external burdens and all of the accompanying judgement. You can make a change. See if it has an impact. Or if it doesn’t. Only you will know.
A series of quiet experiments
We are not advocating going dark and failing to fulfil our obligations. These should be prioritised and deadlines should be met. Yet we can experiment quietly with how we approach our tasks, making subtle adjustments and tweaks that fly under the radar of over-attentive line managers.
In a work setting, this means Identifying the most important tasks on your plate and doing them as promised.
How you approach this obligation is now within your gift.
Take breaks without announcing them to your colleagues.
Disconnect from your email without loudly proclaiming that's what you’re going to do.
Don't immediately respond to every message that comes in.
Experiment with the time you start work.
Over time, the people around you may well adapt to your way of working. They might not even notice these subtle behavioural tweaks, but you will feel the benefits. And your most important work still gets the time and attention it requires.
Only share your experiments with those who take a keen interest in your methods, otherwise take comfort in the thrill of quiet experimentation and the joy of incremental improvements.
Our ability to influence policy, culture and the day to day actions of the people around us is hugely underestimated. Quiet experiments are often our quickest route towards making a positive change.
Like the birds on a wire, it often only takes one to react to a provocation. Soon, those changes may spread across the flock.
If the WHO statistics tell us anything, it’s that we need to be individually engaged with our own relationship with work. The stakes are too high not to try.
Have a go. Try something quietly. See if anyone notices.
At first, it might feel as though you are alone, clapping in an empty field.
But who knows?
By attempting a quiet experiment, you might just start a movement.
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