Thursday December 12, 2019

This just isn‘t working out

As working weeks become bloated, schedules elasticated and a constant need to up-skill squeezes in on spare time, Jessie Collins considers the cost to our relationships

24th November, 2019

When the Irish government announced plans to look at the ‘right to disconnect’ last August, a move that would give employees legal protection against out-of-office hours emails, came on the back of a payout to a business executive from Kepak. While the Irish working week must not exceed 48 hours, most contracts stipulate fewer hours, which is why the Kepak case was indicative of a practice that has become increasingly commonplace, with a clear detriment to workers’ personal time.

Meanwhile, the ESRI’s 2018 Job Stress and Working Conditions report found that between 2010 and 2015, Ireland was one of the countries showing the steepest increase in job stress. It also found that those working over 40 hours per week were twice as likely to experience job stress than those working 36 to 40 hours.

All of this, it bears noting, comes in direct contrast to the framework in France, whereby the working week must not exceed 35 hours and legislation on the right to disconnect came into colourful force more than two years ago.

The switching-off myth

Longer working hours and stress go together. The same ESRI study found that employees in general were 2.3 times more likely to experience stress in 2015 than in 2010. And the drivers of those stressors? The second strongest factor the ESRI found was time pressure, citing “employees working under high time pressure are ten times more likely to experience job stress than those in jobs with the lowest level of time pressure".

While workers on the lower end of the scale are experiencing greater job insecurity, the higher paid end of the employment spectrum seems to be increasingly defined by an elongated working week and evaporating personal time. In Enforced Flexibility, Working in Ireland Today, a 2016 study conducted by the Think-tank for Action on Social Change, an increased workload in more typically structured areas such as finance was found to be pervasive.

The report authors James Wickham and Alicja Bobek said: "One of the common themes featuring in the interviews with those who worked in ICT and finance was the growing importance of targets and, in general, the growing amount of work performed by individuals on a day-to-day basis. Most agreed that since the financial crisis ‘less people do more work’, especially in the financial sector.”

Deirdre Hayes, a psychotherapist who offers a wide range of training courses for companies including Stripe, says the first victim of work stress is an employee’s personal life. “Increasingly I’m seeing people and couples who are saying, ‘I know I’m really busy but I’m just trying to get a mortgage, I’ve only had 22 meetings with the bank’, or ‘I’m trying to work up to this promotion and the boss really needs me, and I’m in an uncertain position here’. All of this puts a real strain on personal time," she says.

"I recently saw a couple who were were in the middle of an 11-day stand-off with one another regarding working hours, which is not good.”

The casual curse

If higher earners work longer weeks, this has only been mirrored by the increasing unpredictability of working schedules on the lower scale. According to a report on the prevelance of zero hour contracts from the University of Limerick: “Approximately 5.3 per cent of employees in 2014 report that they work hours that vary to the extent that they cannot indicate a consistent or regular number of weekly hours.”

While people with constantly variable part-time hours fell slightly from 1998 to 2007, it almost doubled between 2007 and 2014.

Much has been made of the gig economy, and while zero-hours contracts were prohibited in most cases in Ireland under the Employment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2018, there are some exceptions to this rule, casual work being one of them.

Fluctuating schedules are more commonplace than ever. According to the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS) figures from 2010, almost a third of employees report that their hours of work vary every day, 24 per cent work a different number of hours each week, 20 per cent work a different set of days every week and 33 per cent appear to have no fixed starting or finishing times.

To parse these statements, about 500,000 Irish workers work a differing number of hours each day, 376,992 work a differing number of hours each week and 314,160 do not work the same number of days every week. More than 500,000 workers have no fixed starting or finishing times.

What’s crucial here is what having that kind of malleability ends up looking like. The same report found that the proportion of employees regularly working evenings increased from 9 per cent in 2001 to almost 14 per cent in 2014; Saturday work went from 19 to 28 per cent and Sunday work from 10 to over 17 per cent.

The unpredictability in certain low-paid areas can be equally destructive as schedules are given at short notice, with the added pressure of having to put in more time to make up enough pay.

The Enforced Flexibility study found: “For many workers their hours are dictated by management on a very short-term basis. For workers on low hourly rates, only long and regular hours can generate adequate weekly earnings, but these are by no means always available.”

The desynchronising of shared time disrupts our ability to regulate time with friends and family. Many parents are under increasing pressure to deliver that extra hour a day to their job, and many even feel more relaxed when managing to cram in that bit of work at the weekend, the stuff you don’t get to in the office. Does that ‘get-ahead’ Sunday evening spent sifting through work emails sound familiar?

Creating a ritual

There is a further influencer among all this, and that is the gradual erosion of job security evident in almost every modern industry. The Enforced Flexibility study cited how employees used to be linked to their employers by a strong ‘psychological contract’. They were “offering their loyalty in exchange for security and stability".

The think-tank noted: "Post-modern firms, as opposed to those from the previous era, have often downsized, restructured, decentralised and engaged in different forms of employment strategies.”

What it found was that in many occupations (including some that are well paid) employment had become more precarious. “The decline of relatively secure employment was especially threatening to those with fewer qualifications and skills; in many European countries the age at which young people with qualifications entered regular employment was rising," it said.

Previously predictable sectors are now uncertain, with an “occupational mobility and aim not only to move upward with one employer, but change companies with a gradual professional progression.” The constant requirement for progress in the workforce comes at a price. The ever-changing nature of all industries now means there is also a perpetual need to up-skill, re-hone or reinforce your expertise.

The pivot being made by many of the workforce is being done in their spare time, something backed up by figures from the Higher Education Authority who registered an increase of almost 60 per cent in the uptake of off-campus or remote learning between 2012 and 2016. People are using their commute, their evenings and their weekends to gain new skills, and many still have young families with plenty of needs.

However, Hayes suggests there are certain hacks for trying to carve out time with friends, and family. In his book The Intentional Family, therapist William J Doherty recommends creating new rituals as a unit. This is something that can translate to friendships too, Hayes says. “Creating new habits with people, and it doesn’t have to be doing anything particularly special, but just something that can become ritualistic, can really make a difference,” she says.

Think this is a can that can be kicked down the road? Think again. A recent study by Harvard Medical School, which looked at data from more than 309,000 people, found that lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50 per cent, while a large Swedish study of those aged 75 and over found that dementia risk was lowest in those with a variety of satisfying contacts with friends and relatives.

Living a longer, healthier, happier life while also seeing those people who matter most? When it comes to those values, I’m with France.

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