Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sustainable Work Life

The word 'Sustainable' most often is used to refer to resource utilization such as sustainable farming practices that preserve soil health. However the word itself refers to patterns which sustain life over the long term. Sustainable farming practices sustain an ecosystem over the long term, etc. But what about our day-to-day lives can also be made sustainable as well?

In my day job my coworkers and myself have recently undergone a period of extreme overwork. The product being developed has a huge feature list, there is a lot to accomplish in order to achieve the envisioned goals and there is very little time to reach the goal. This of course meant the team routinely worked overtime often 80 more hours a week.

This sort of scenario happens in businesses around the world all the time. The bosses of the world seem to have worked out ways to motivate employees to work long hours. What inspires me write at this moment is the unhealthy condition this creates in employees and the employers responsibility.

It's widely known that working long hours is unhealthy. A lot depends on the sort of work being performed, as long hours in front of a computer doesn't create the same bodily stress as long hours threshing grain in a field.

The Center for Disease Control publishes Work Schedules: Shift Work and Long Work Hours , an overview of studies regarding long work hours, working at night, and shift work. It refers to greater degree of accidents and other health issues.

Working Long Hours Places Women at Health Risk A UK study suggests working long hours can cause women to indulge in unhealthy behaviors more so than men.

The impact of overtime and long work hours on occupational injuries and illnesses: new evidence from the United States Results: After adjusting for those factors, working in jobs with overtime schedules was associated with a 61% higher injury hazard rate compared to jobs without overtime. Working at least 12 hours per day was associated with a 37% increased hazard rate and working at least 60 hours per week was associated with a 23% increased hazard rate. A strong dose-response effect was observed, with the injury rate (per 100 accumulated worker-years in a particular schedule) increasing in correspondence to the number of hours per day (or per week) in the workers' customary schedule.

This article in the International Game Developers Association website is especially appropriate: Why Crunch Mode Doesn't Work: 6 Lessons More than a century of studies show that long-term useful worker output is maximized near a five-day, 40-hour workweek. Productivity drops immediately upon starting overtime and continues to drop until, at approximately eight 60-hour weeks, the total work done is the same as what would have been done in eight 40-hour weeks. In the short term, working over 21 hours continuously is equivalent to being legally drunk. Longer periods of continuous work drastically reduce cognitive function and increase the chance of catastrophic error. In both the short- and long-term, reducing sleep hours as little as one hour nightly can result in a severe decrease in cognitive ability, sometimes without workers perceiving the decrease.

In the game industry the bosses routinely force employees into crunch mode working the employees for long long long hours. But this article shows decades of research into the productivity available from a workforce based on the hours of work per week. Rested healthy employees are able to do more and able to perform more reliably than ones who are worn out and punchy from working long hours. Duh..

Sustained Reduced Sleep Can Have Serious Consequences

Working Long Hours: a Review of the Evidence The review of the research literature shows that long hours working, especially when coupled with sleep disruption, causes deterioration of task performance, because it has detrimental effects on such things as rates of error, pace of work and social behaviour....The review of the research literature shows clear grounds for concern about the adverse effect of long hours working and (the frequency of) health and safety incidents. However, most of this research focuses upon specific occupations (eg long distance lorry drivers, the medical professions), which precludes more general conclusions being drawn. ...The review of the research literature shows that there is little robust statistical evidence on the effects of long hours working on employee motivation, absence and turnover. However, self-reporting and organisational case studies suggest that long working hours has a negative effect on motivation, absence and turnover....

Why do employers regularly ask for long work hours? Great question. Perhaps they're all skinflinting scrooges who don't care about the negative effects on their employees. Who knows? Clearly this is a pattern which has existed for centuries if not more.

In the modern societies like the U.S.A. there are laws about work hours. These regulations vary from country to country but obviously there are ways the bosses have of getting around the laws.

One way is that in my profession nobody works on an hourly basis but instead on a salaried basis. Such workers are not subject to hour limits on their work time and can be subject to extra work.

Employers are in a position of leverage over their employees. Obviously the employer is in the position of providing money, and the money is what provides food and shelter. You can easily analyze this with the hierarchy of needs, with the first rung of the hierarchy being food and shelter. Basic survival of the employee, then, is dependent on receiving money from the employer. Hence this puts the employer in the position of providing the employees survival. THAT is a crucial role to play and even subtle threats on that flow of money can appear to the employee to be a threat to survival.

Can an employee effectively choose to keep their work life in healthy balance? This seems like a difficult thing to accomplish. For example some fields of work routinely have long shifts such as in medicine or fire fighters. If every employer in your chosen field of work insists on unhealthy work hours, what can you do?

What is the ideal arrangement of working, workers, employment, employers, and sustainable survival? I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

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