By Somali K Chakrabarti
Working for 6 days a week is never a particularly appealing idea. Most people would agree that a single Sunday is not enough to wash away the fatigue of working throughout the week.
Till recently when my spouse had a 6 day work week, life outside of work was dreary, almost non-existent as the weekends were generally spent on routine household chores, stocking stuff for weekly consumption or for occasionally watching a movie. Others with a 6 day work week would admit to having a similar lacklustre schedule.
Surprisingly, now close to 100 years after the 5 days, ’40 hours’ work week was first instituted by Henry Ford, to boost productivity among workers, many Indian companies are still hesitant about adopting a 5 day culture.
It is interesting to note that from time to time, number of studies have indicated that working for long hours over a period of time does not increase productivity. Quite the reverse, productivity is supposed to drop beyond 40 hours of work per week (as per a research paper published in 2011, by the International Labour Organization).
Working for long hours over prolonged periods are known to cause strain, fatigue and burn out among the middle-aged people, thereby impacting cognitive performance and productivity, shows a study published in the American Journal of Epidemilogy [i].
In wake of the knowledge that productivity does not increase with a longer work week, the question arises :
Why are some Indian companies still on a 6 day work week?
Deliberating upon the rationale behind a 6 day week and discussing with a friend who was on his way to work on a Saturday, here are some reasons that I came across:
The prevailing work culture in some companies is such that people are expected to put in longer hours at work to be seen as committed. When employees perceive that management expects them to put in extra hours every day, they don’t leave even after they have completed their work, unless the boss leaves. As this behaviour percolates down the levels, it turns into a culture that becomes pervasive in the entire workforce.
Social setup has a key role to play in the average amount of time spent at work.
Availability of other people to take care of domestic issues, at times leads to people staying back at work after the office hours or working during the weekends. People who live in joint families can depend on other family members to take care of the household needs, so they may not particularly mind longer working hours or a longer work week. In contrast, people living in nuclear families often struggle with childcare arrangements and want better work conditions and shorter hours.
Sometimes people stay around in the office for long hours or work on weekends due to lack of other alternatives that allow them to spend time constructively.
The long hours put in at work may not necessarily translate into higher productivity for the company. However, in absence of management effort to change the existing work culture, the inertia continues.
The economic growth of a country is marked by an increase in availability of jobs. During phases of economic growth, people aspire to have better work conditions and a work-life balance. Additionally, people are more open to accept the fact that productivity, driven by technology and well-functioning markets, drives wealth more than the hours worked.
But when economic growth is slower, the churn at all levels particularly at senior management levels is reduced and so is the new intake. During periods of slow economic growth, those who are employed tend to work longer hours and flexible work schedules are generally uncommon. Due to lack of fresh perspectives that new employees may bring in, the existing mindset gets entrenched and prevailing organization culture becomes harder to change.
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The nature of jobs can also impact the work hours.
For operational roles, such as in production lines, where efficiency is the key and output is distinctly and immediately visible, companies generally have set shift hours and a 5 day work week, so that employees are most productive during those work hours and rejuvenated during the weekend.
Where work is around influencing people, getting buy-in or building relationships, it requires more of work-life integration than a demarcation between working and non-working hours. As such flexible working hours are more suited for such roles.
In industries such as IT industry where people have to connect and continuously be in touch with counterparts in other parts of the world, work hours stretch due to time differences. In customer orientated roles in the service industry such as travel, leisure, catering etc, people may need to work on public holidays and outside of office hours.
Worldwide too, we see wide variations in the average workweek across different countries. On one hand, you would hear of Japanese employees putting in long hours at work, on the other hand, Germans are known to work for shorter duration with remarkable efficiency. East Asian economies such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea also have a high number of average hours worked per year.
In the US, while eight hours per day is often the “official” expectation, many employees feel they need to work longer if they want to get ahead. Germans, on the other hand, although do not work long hours, but are known to work very efficiently. The French government has mandated a 35 hour work week. In countries such as Sweeden and Netherlands, laws promote a work-life balance and protect part-time workers. Some business leaders like British businessman Richard Branson and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim are even promoting the concept of a 3 day work week.
The chart shows a variation of work hours between OECD countries in 2012.
The key to implementing a 5 day work week, while increasing productivity is to work smarter than harder. Studies suggest that people work harder if you limit their time to complete a certain task. Creating a work culture that focuses on priority tasks, reduces distractions, maximizes concentration, optimizes workflow and reduces redundancies in work can help people to be more productive while leaving some time for them to take up other creative pursuits.
While a 3 day work week may not be suited to a developing country like India, but as the growth in economy picks up again and more Indian companies establish their presence in other countries, they would need to converge to common work standards, keeping productivity and efficiency on the forefront.
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[i] Long Working Hours and Cognitive Function, The Whitehall II Study,
Am. J. Epidemiol. (2009) 169 (5):596-605