Action for the year: Connect, reduce overwork – and move

Kate Kearins has been pondering on a claim that if you work more than 39 hours a week, your job could be killing you.

After a good summer break, with a slight sense of easing back into work, I’ve returned to the office and enjoyed doing activities I rarely find time for. Moving around the buildings that comprise the business, economics and law schools, checking in on some colleagues in their new work spaces, and stopping to chat with others has been a pleasant start to the year.

Seeing people talking about the fun things they did during the break, their good intentions on both personal and work fronts, and filing their annual leave plans provides a sense of balance that can seem like it’s missing when busyness takes over. 

An article by Peter Fleming in The Guardian titled “Do you work more than 39 hours a week? Your job could be killing you” prompted me to think a bit more too.  A 39-hour week is less than five eight-hour days. Most people I know do at least that amount of work, if not in the office, then at home, early morning, nights, checking emails before they go to bed and in the weekend. Fleming says the long hours, associated stress and inactivity (sitting still and probably slouching) are bad for us. 

Research shows many workers experience long periods of inactivity. The average in one study is 12.3 hours a day. These researchers from Columbia University Medical Centre claim that employees who are sedentary for more than 13 hours a day are twice as likely to die prematurely as those who were inactive for only 11 and a half hours. They conclude that “sitting in an office for long periods has a similar effect to smoking and ought to come with a health warning”… note I have just got up and walked around the office.

We know overwork and periods of sitting still are bad for us and yet our bad habits persist. What can we as managers do about this conundrum? 

First and foremost, allow time for what might seem like pleasantries, for co-workers to connect with each other, even about things that go beyond work. Make time to go see a co-worker rather than firing off emails to the person in a nearby office. 

Second, do some connecting yourself. Authentic engagement can be beneficial. One of the lessons I learnt from a colleague was to build social capital. Develop relationships that transcend the day-to-day transactions and tasks, was her advice. Do so, so when there is some form of disagreement about a work priority, you have a deeper relationship that continues and that will see you through the tricky patch.

Third, find out whether people’s jobs are what I call ‘tenable’. Are they do-able in a reasonable amount of time? Or are they too big? Check position descriptions from time-to-time. Are employees suffering from unreasonable expectations? Work towards some kind of recalibration.

Fourth, on the flip side, are there jobs that no longer need doing, or roles with lots of padding? Knowing the difference between valuable work, building social capital and ‘make work’ is important – and can help balance the books and redirect employees into more fulfilling activities.

Fifth – it’s time for me to do another circuit of the office – move! Get active or risk shortening your life. I have colleagues who walk the 10 flights of stairs in the business building twice a day. I’m not that dedicated but I confess to noticing the activity tracker that my physio recommended buzzing me when I sit for too long.

 Interesting that it never buzzed me over the holiday break … and my back felt much better for the gardening, the hiking, the swimming and the connecting with relatives and friends. The message is clear: connect, reduce overwork – and move.

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Professor Kate Kearins is Pro-Vice Chancellor and Dean of Business, Economics and Law at Auckland University of Technology. She is a Professor of Management and a manager of professors (and others).

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