A few years ago, no one would have thought that working from home, working less hours, or saying no to an eager employer who has just called you on the weekend could not only be possible, but beneficial to productivity, the economy, and our health. But as countries and big companies around the world are trying their new normal, is this the end of the rat race?
“We may have organised our society around the belief that we need to work for a paycheck, and that paying workers more leads to better work: Yet why are so many people dissatisfied with their work, despite healthy [financial] compensation, and why is our society confused and unhappy?" Such are the questions being asked by experts such as Professor Barry Schwartz, who writes the answers to these questions are "surprising, complex, and urgent."
Already in 2013 it was found by Gallup that a mere 13% of employees worldwide are engaged at work. In other words, says the analytics and advisory company: "Only about one in eight workers, or roughly 180 million employees in the countries studied, are psychologically committed to their jobs and likely to be making positive contributions to their organisations."
"We are checked out, sleepwalking through our days, putting little energy into our work. And the rest of us are actively disengaged, actually hating our jobs," wrote global business news provider Quartz in 2015.
When Gallup measured global engagement again in 2020, still "80% of global employees are either watching the clock, or actively working against their employer’s goals," a Gallup spokesperson recently told Breaking Perspectives, adding that besides the effects of the epidemic "all negative emotions (worry, stress, anger, sadness) have been rising since we started measuring them in 2009."
Figures have been showing that the UK’s infamous ‘long-hours culture’ is "robbing workers of a decent home life and time with their loved ones," and that "overwork, stress and exhaustion" have become the new normal.
Turns out, all that early getting up early is not necessarily a good thing for our health either. Researchers who have started linking our circadian clock to human disease, report that this ''misalignment'' of regularly getting up early with an alarm clock can have detrimental effects on our health such as being overweight, or addictions to nicotine or alcohol.
So disheartened, uninspired, unfulfilled and under-stimulated many of us are by our work, we are no longer just talking about Burnout, we now also talk about a Boreout, with all its detrimental effects on our lives, our state of mind, our health.
The big global rethink
When in the 2009 movie Up in the Air a fictional character called Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) flies around the world to fire people from their jobs, the script takes on a different take than you would expect: Whilst Bingham shows the people the door, he also offers them another perspective.
Instead of considering the event as the worst thing that can happen to them (one of the disgruntled workers even tries to commits suicide), Bingham uses a few stock phrases, such as: "Anyone who built an empire or changed the world sat where you are right now." In other words, why waste a good crisis.
Talking of a good crisis, it is particularly since the epidemic that we have been rethinking our workplace and the flexibility of working. The anti-work movement, the big resign; there have been great shifts going on, as we are starting to ask questions around whether there’s purpose to our work – or to the economic system itself.
As businesses and governments all over the world are working on a new normal with, for example, four-day working weeks, there have been reports from Iceland with its 'overwhelming success,' to Toronto, with its 'increased company revenue,' as well as people who are 'more relaxed and happy.'
Even in the UK, known for that harsh working culture, a change is going on with a national trial spearheaded by 4 Day Week Global, with a formula for less working hours in a four day week, with no loss of income. The formula has reportedly brought improvements from gender equality to more productivity, as well as health and wellbeing of partaking workers.
"From UAE To New Zealand: These Countries Have Shifted To Four-Day Work Week," an author of the India Times also wrote recently. Globally, employees are saying that a four-day-work week makes their overall lives just better.
There are however, also companies that say it simply isn’t working. That flexible, remote and hybrid-working patterns require too much of an overhaul in organisational structure, or that it threatens our workplace culture since people meet less in person.
But those in favour argue, for example, that working yourself to the bone is only effective up to a point. They say that 'working this many hours a week is basically pointless,' and that instead you 'can get more done by doing less.'
Doing less, the smart way they say, in many cases is turning out to be a better approach.
Experts such as Forbes have called the 5-day-week an 'antiquated relic from the past,' and that it’s something that we should stop doing now.
Could it be that things are fundamentally changing?
"Now more than ever, people are placing more importance on how and where they work. For some roles, flexible and remote working options are now expected as standard. Employees are looking to build better work-life balances without losing out financially,” said Elliott Smith, co-founder of UK-based Love your Employees."
The company itself is known as a unique marketplace for benefits and wellbeing in the UK, and Smith added: "There’s more of a focus on employee wellbeing ... Employees will be seeking out companies who are prioritising their mental and physical health. This will be the key to remaining competitive in the market."
When an expert such as Steve Glaveski, author of 'Time Rich: Do Your Best Work, Live Your Best Life,' did his own working less, producing more experiment with the team of his consulting company Collective Campus in Australia, he discovered their shorter workday came with many benefits. His company in itself is helping organisations create "more value for the world" and "more fulfilling work lives," and when he wrote about the experiment in Harvard Business Review in 2018, he said that it had "forced the team to prioritise effectively, limit interruptions, and operate at a much more deliberate level for the first few hours of the day."
Glaveski also wrote that the team "maintained, and in some cases increased, its quantity and quality of work," benefitted from "an improved mental state," as well as "more time for rest, family, friends, and other endeavours."
The past few years there has been talk about a redefining of work for businesses and major organisational transformation and as business leaders and employers all over the world are looking at the right way forward, advisers are now telling them they should look at ways to "improve the work experience first," and for leaders to "focus on employee engagement and wellbeing to build organisational resilience for tomorrow's workplace."
They say the time has come to return to the most basic question of all: "What is work?," that creative solutions can be found, and that in doing so the focus should lie on the people that work for the company, not necessarily on new technology.
Professor Schwarz from the previously mentioned "Why do we work?" book, also told Breaking Perspectives: "The big question in my mind is whether the "great resignation" is just a blip, or whether people will persist in asking more from their work than a pay cheque, no matter how generous it is. Time will tell, I guess, but I'm not optimistic that what we are now seeing will be permanent." "Unless," he added: "dissatisfied individuals start banding together, organising, and demanding more."
"The pandemic has created the perfect environment for business to use the lessons from the enforced change to our work habits," said Charlotte Lockhart, who together with Andrew Barnes established the 4 Day Week Global initiative. She added there will have to be a "move towards the understanding we now have about workplace wellbeing, as well as the necessary shift required for a healthy planet and society."
Time will tell, but with new developments like these, there could be a structural change on the horizon, not just a trend.
“The big question in my mind is whether the "great resignation" is just a blip, or whether people will persist in asking more from their work than a pay cheque, no matter how generous it is"