Work culture in the United States is in a strange place. Some companies offer unlimited vacation days, while others look down upon people who take theirs. Some companies offer flex-time and work-from-home days, while others mandate strict schedules and universal office presence. To be sure, there’s no one “right” way of doing things; each brand has a different image and a different culture, and each worker has individual needs. However, a recent work culture trend illustrates the dangers and nonsensical reasoning behind overly-demanding or regimented cultures.
In a recent study published in Organization Science, Boston University professor Erin Reid explored the dichotomy between personal and professional identities, particularly around one surprising phenomenon in the modern workplace: Many workers are pretending to work 80-hour or other excessive work weeks, when in actuality, they’re working far less. The breadth of her research was restricted to only one global firm, and one that seemingly embraces the “workaholic culture” characteristic of so many large organizations today. However, since publishing that research, Professor Reid has received thousands of reports from individuals around the country who are executing the same patterns of behavior.
The Workaholic Culture
The root of the dissonance is arguably the “workaholic culture” that seems to plague many modern businesses. Large firms, with a powerful presence, fragile investor relations, and a proud, historical image to maintain, often demand the best from their workers. Internal positions are highly competitive, with promotions being highly sought-after by career-minded individuals and firings and lay-offs common enough to strike fear into the heart of the average worker.
In these situations, going “above and beyond” actually becomes the new norm. Because everyone in a given organization, or a given office, is showing up early, working through breaks, staying late, and working on weekends, anyone who goes home at 5 PM is seen as a slacker, or seen as not giving 100% effort. Of course, formally demanding anyone to work constant 80-hour work weeks without alternative compensation is illegal, but that doesn’t stop passive-aggressive remarks, peer pressure, and performance reviews from gradually “hinting” that this type of performance is what’s expected. The end result is that you must overwork yourself in order to survive—or at least appear that you are overworking yourself.
Why “Faking It” Isn’t So Bad
Some people are truly able to thrive in this type of environment. Some of them are highly competitive, able to perform their best only when their peers are equally competitive and capable. Others are career-minded, willing to do whatever it takes to advance. Still, others avoid their personal lives, burying themselves in work for fulfillment instead. But most people are overwhelmed with this type of approach. They start to resent their work, they miss out on personal time with their family and friends, and eventually they’re so burned out that they can’t even perform basic functions at work.
According to Professor Reid’s study, 80-hour fakers aren’t necessarily slacking off. They’re working just as well as their nose-to-the-grindstone counterparts. They may sneak out early or rearrange their meetings in a way that’s more convenient for them—they may even work with others within a group to cover for each other during certain periods—but they still get results comparable to those from their truly overworking co-workers. They keep their clients happy, they get all their assignments done, and yet they don’t need nearly as much office time. Instead, they can be more fulfilled in their personal lives and have a much healthier work-life balance.
The Truth Behind 80-Hour Work Weeks
According to this admittedly limited information, it would appear that 80-hour work weeks are, on the whole, unnecessary. Working that long, that hard, and that consistently shows no more results than working under normal, healthier conditions. In a sense, the workaholic culture is all about an illusion, making it seem like you’re working harder than you actually are. It’s about being at the office a certain amount of time or being in a certain number of meetings rather than getting a certain result or doing a certain amount of work. Because these institutions are so focused on the process, and not on the results, the 80-hour work week continues to drive workers to burnout while the “fakers” slip by unnoticed.
The bottom line here is that 80-hour work weeks and workaholic cultures are useless. They serve only to excessively burden certain segments of the population while doing very little for companies’ overall profitability.
A Better Approach
There must be a better approach, and there is—but that approach is going to vary based on the type of business seeking it. Some companies might benefit by offering more flexible working hours. Others might benefit by shifting employee performance reviews to centering on productivity, or results, rather the process workers use to get those results. Still others, particularly young companies and startups, could abandon the old notion of schedules and work weeks entirely, giving workers a set of responsibilities and letting them execute those responsibilities however they see fit.
There’s no universal solution, but the problem is clear; traditional ideas of workplace culture are growing to become obsolete, and businesses will need to evolve if they want to stay afloat in the changing world. If profitability can be maintained (or even improved) and the happiness and work-life balance of individual workers can be increased, why not adopt a new approach, even if it breaks the traditional norms? Those norms are already being broken. It’s time to do so more openly, and on a bigger scale.
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