Healthy future means working much smarter

In historical terms, the 40-hour working week is a relatively new phenomenon.

In 1890, the average working week for full-time manufacturing employees was a whopping 100 hours. It was the Ford Motor Company, which, in 1926, mandated the 40-hour working week, as much for the benefit of employers as for employees. Henry Ford observed that fatigued workers make more mistakes. Asking them to work more than 40 hours usually cost him more money than it made.

Public health experts now talk about work stress as an epidemic and a key player in the mechanisms of ageing. As the boundary between work and personal life dissolves, companies need to assume greater responsibility for the health and performance of an ageing workforce.

Research for the University College of London found those who work a 55-hour week have a 33 per cent greater risk of stroke, are 13 per cent more likely to develop heart disease and are far more likely to suffer despression, insomnia and type 2 diabetes – compared to those who work only 40 hours per week. Last year, a study of 8000 adults by the Australian National University reported women who worked more than 34 hours a week and men who put in more than 37 hours had higher rates of stress and illness. There appears to be a threshold – working 39 hours a week – beyond which mental health rapidly declines.

As employment conditions deteriorate, unhealthy workplaces placing excessive demands on employees are being redefined as the new “normal”. But nothing can alleviate the stress of overwork except working less. Currently only 1 in 5 workers works the hours they’d like to.

We now know that reducing our weekly workload by 3.5 hours reduces alcohol consumption and smoking rates. And every one hour reduction in work increases the probability of workers participating in physical activity outside the office.

Columbia University researchers monitored the activity patterns of 8000 workers, all over 45. Their findings were striking. The average period of day time inactivity was 12.3 hours. Employees who were sedentary for more than 13 hours a day doubled their risk of premature death, compared to those who were inactive for 11.5 hours. The authors concluded that sitting in an office for long periods had a similar effect to smoking and ought to come with a health warning.

There’s growing evidence that many of us use long working hours as a status symbol. This overwork ignores the dire consequences to our health and wellbeing.

The world of business is constantly changing. The difficult economic climate worldwide means many of us are being asked to do “more with less”. This mantra adds to the costs associated with the increased stress. It accelerates the ageing process. Employers want staff who can increase their productivity without compromising their health. Visionary companies should think radically about how they can mobilise resources to realise the potential of their workers by using profiling and tracking systems.

These can identify key indicators of health and fitness. Staff are also happier at work when they feel their organisation cares for and is concerned about them. The Swedish government funded an experiment where retirement home nurses worked six-hour days and still received an eight-hour salary. The result? Less sick leave, less stress, and a jump in productivity.

As artificial intelligence defines the future of human employment, it’s crucial we learn how to work smarter rather than harder. Only 18 per cent of Aussie workers expect shorter working hours to be the outcome of technological change. Managers need performance data to predict what workplace challenges lie ahead.

We know there is a positive link between healthy employees and their level of engagement. A fit workforce is three times more productive. Managers who choose to invest in their employees – who want to see them finish work in better shape than they started – leave behind a legacy of great leadership.

Originally published in The West Australian – 31st May 2018