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Can we find time for the 9 to 5 grind?

‘Fika’ is the Swedish word for workplace coffee breaks with colleagues. For Scandinavians, coffee is symbolic of relaxation and compliments the congenial company of colleagues. For the frantic financial analyst, the Venti-10-shots-skimmed-milk Americano comes with a side of eyebags and deadline anxieties. Even so, coffee is just one of the many unique features of the Scandinavian work culture which highlights the contrasting relationships we have with work around the world.

To talk of the ‘9-5 grind’ in this day and age, especially with regards to the cut-throat world of lawyers, bankers and accountants, is a phenomena as unusual as seeing the frantic financial analyst stand on the right side of the tube escalator at rush hours. Statistics place the average leaving time for employees working in London law firms at 9.30pm. This work culture is not limited to lawyers alone however; traders for major U.S. banks and in-house doctors in their training placement years work an average of 12 hours a day.

But this work culture is not limited to the world of employment; students are also overworking. Reports have shown that more students are seeking help from university counselling services in times of stress. But overworking transcends university studies, with interns, who are often unpaid, working long hours also. Back in 2013, a 21-year-old business studies student, Moritz Erhardt, was found dead while interning in London for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. His death was rumored to have been caused by a fit after working until 6am for three consecutive days.

21-year-old business studies student, Moritz Erhardt, was found dead while interning in London

Despite the average working week in the UK exceeding the European average, every employee in the UK has the statutory right to request flexible working after 26 weeks of employment. Research by HSBC at the end of 2017 found that flexible and remote working practices are more likely to motivate staff and increase workplace productivity. Alongside the advancement of technology in workplaces in this digital age, flexibility in the workplace is certainly a lot easier to achieve. However, employers are careful when granting flexible working hours due to the possibility of unreasonably reduced working hours and conditions that could lead to inefficiency. Head of EMEA Equity Capital Markets at HSBC, Adrian Lewis, has emphasised the need for managers to be confident that workers are at least as productive at home as they would be in the office.

But perhaps the question we should be asking is not whether we ought to work less, but whether we want to work less. The root of the problem seems to be workaholism. More governments, like South Korea’s for instance, are imposing a maximum of 8 working hours a day, or 9am – 5pm. Hence, even asking whether we should work less than the ‘9-5 grind’ is out of the ordinary. Even with the imposition of these labour laws, working over-time will still very likely persist. Traditional workplace hours of 9am to 5pm are now only the norm for a minority of workers, with a recent YouGov survey finding that only 6% of people in the UK now work such hours.

There is a fine line between being passionate and devoted to your work and being a workaholic

Many of us will work overtime to prove a point – whether you are a student or working professional. Phrases such as ‘you reap what you sow’ and ‘hard work begets success’ brings us back to our classrooms. It has been ingrained in us since childhood that we should work more to achieve more. An example of this would be the ‘extra-credit’ system in North American high schools, where students can undertake specific tasks outside of the academic syllabus in order to boost the grades for a class. It is no wonder, then, that when we enter the working world we exhibit the same human instincts to go the extra mile – whether that involves doing the extra reading to impress a professor, interns working harder to exceed expectations in hopes of securing a graduate scheme, or workers taking up more responsibility to increase their chances of promotion. In this cut-throat world where we have to compete relentlessly for limited job positions, many of us will voluntarily exceed our contractual obligations.

If workers willingly work beyond the ‘9-5’, it effectively renders such policies to be inefficacious. Clearly, we can’t stop employees from ‘going their extra mile’ at home or outside their workplace. Thus, such policies only protect the ones who do not want to and are forced by their employers to work more. These policies do not cure the disease of workaholism. But is a lack of work-life balance really a problem? Why should we work less, if we apparently do not want to work less?

It is not that simple and, arguably, there is a fine line between being passionate and devoted to your work and being a workaholic. Psychology Today describes workaholism as a “soul-destroying addiction that changes people’s personality and the values they live by, which eventually leads to the loss of personal and professional integrity”. But workaholism is difficult to identify. Where and for whom can the line be drawn for overworking? For example, for those who need to make ends meet at home in times of uncertain economic climates, who are we to say that they should be working less?

Almost four in ten people (37%) in the UK who work full-time say that they would prefer to work between 8am and 4pm

Ultimately, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to when and how much one should be working. An underlying purpose behind access to flexibility in working hours is linked to the fact that people have contrasting levels of productivity at different hours of the day. The YouGov survey also showed that almost four in ten people (37%) in the UK who work full-time say that they would prefer to work between 8am and 4pm. Interestingly, working from 7am to 3pm is preferential to working 9am-5pm but working 10am to 6pm is favoured by 11% of those working full-time jobs.

Seeking change in the work culture would require not only an alteration in workplace dynamics but a revolution in our relationship with work. It would perhaps be inefficient to identify a solution that suits everyone; instead, recognition of the impact work has on our lives is a possible first step in considering if we need to change anything at all.

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