It’s late – why are you still here?

Is that a question asked in your organisation when someone is consistently working late? Or is being seen to work late a sign of commitment? Alternatively, is working late recognised as not ideal, but nothing gets done about it as it’s ‘unfortunately part and parcel of working here’? With 21 June, the longest day of the year, being 2017’s ‘Go home on time day’, it’s time to question whether a work-life balance is valued in your organisation.

#gohomeontime day was set up by Working Families, a charity that helps working parents and carers and their employers find a better balance between responsibilities at home and work. It’s an annual event designed to raise awareness of the importance of work-life balance to both employees and employers in the UK. And it’s a helpful flag to employers, managers and HR teams to be thinking about how often their teams are working late and the impact of that for engagement, well-being and ultimately retention as it can only be sustainable for so long.

Work-life balance still feels a distant aspiration for many people. In our latest Absence Management survey, 56% of HR professionals surveyed said long working hours are the norm in their organisation to a great or moderate extent, up from 43% in 2015. This rise is consistent with recent findings from the TUC that the number of people working excessive hours has risen by 15% since 2010. In contrast, only 14% of employers said they didn’t have a ‘stay late’ culture. Looking at sector differences, the non-profit sector is half as likely as the public and private sector to say long working hours are an issue for them.

In this survey we looked to see whether there were any correlations between having a culture of long working hours and worrying workplace trends:

  • We found that increases in stress-related absence are more common where long working hours are the norm. And we know the main cause of stress at work is workload.
  • Presenteeism (people coming to work ill) was found to be further issue associated with a long hours working culture. It makes sense in that if you feel you can’t leave on time you may also feel you can’t take time off when you’re ill and should be at home getting better.
  • Increases in mental health problems are somewhat related to a long hours’ culture.

These figures on the link between a long hour’s culture at work and mental health, stress and presenteeism should be a huge wake-up call to UK employers.

So, how do we change organisational culture? Firstly, role modelling needs to come from the top as much as through policies and good practice. Secondly, line managers have an important role to play in keeping an eye on the development of long hours’ cultures at work, and making sure it doesn’t become a problem. Ensuring employee workloads are manageable, having regular one-to-ones as well as opportunities for feedback are all effective tools for doing this.

In my view, employers are going to be on the back foot when it comes to attracting and retaining talented people if going home on time is a novelty. With our changing population demographics, we’re going to have to be even better at juggling our work and personal lives. For example, with our ageing population, the number of people with eldercare responsibilities will continue to grow.

Estimates suggest that three in five people will end up caring for someone at some point in their lives, so employers need to empower and support working carers or risk losing them. And this is in addition to childcare responsibilities. And there’s the risk of burn-out; an over-worked employee isn’t going to be on top form for a sustainable length of time.

Working families are asking people to take a picture of their watch or clock as they leave work on 21 June and post it on Twitter or Facebook saying, ‘I’m going to #gohomeontime today to…’. Mention @workingfamuk and they mightretweet you.
In the spirit of #gohomeontime, I’m off!

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  • I have had situations where people are signed off by their GP (in one case for stress) but still came into work because of urgent tasks that no-one else could do. What's the legal position on 'presenteeism' here? I've talked to them about overdoing things and the need to take the time to recover, but so far to little effect!