Professors Ioana Lupu and Bernard Leca, ESSEC Business School, and Mayra Ruiz-Castro of the University of Roehampton, show what it takes for people to reduce long working hours, especially in the context of professional service firms (PSFs).
The impact of long working hours on employees, by CoBS Editor Guragam Singh with the kind input of Profs. Ioana Lupu and Bernard Leca. Related research: Role Distancing and the Persistence of Long Working Hours in Professional Service Firms, SAGE.
Law and audit
In the pilot episode of the American legal drama, Suits, one of the protagonists is ‘advised’ in their first week on the job to keep late hours if they want to last the month. Given how drama expresses real-life scenarios, it is not surprising to find that burning the midnight oil is a part and parcel of the job for people in sectors such as audit, finance, law, and medicine.
This practice is in line with the expectation of organisations that their employees must be almost exclusive in their commitment and availability to work. This has led to conflict as people struggle to manage who they are as opposed to who they have to be. This causes such professionals to unsuccessfully use coping methods such as cynicism and humour, for the people continue to work as usual, without doing anything to ease their plight. Of course, this is easier said than done.
Yet, say the researchers, ‘by questioning their taken-for-grantedness and redefining their professional role for themselves and others’, some professionals have been able to do just that. And in order to find out what exactly prodded these people into action, the research team conducted close to 200 interviews with 78 professionals who worked in the London offices of two firms—one in law, and the other in audit. They spoke with an equal number of men and women, most of whom were between 30 and 50 years old and were in either middle or senior management roles. Most of them had at least one dependent child.
Work is worship
As such, in both firms people essentially said that while long-working hours were not a pre-requisite to becoming a good professional, it just wasn’t possible to be one if you didn’t put in the work given demanding clients and the inability to delegate.
In addition, the environment was one giving an impression that the role required 100 per cent of the employee’s devotion and that there were no two ways about it. As such, the normalisation of long-working hours was so institutionalised, that the very of idea of departing from this tradition seemed blasphemous to some.
It’s not just about principles. Conformity to ‘ideal-worker’ image, instilled through socialisation and supervision, is rewarded with promotions and fatter paycheques while non-compliance may lead to serious career damage. Not something to be taken lightly.
“I Want to Break Free”
Given these stakes, it was professionals who experienced near or actual life-altering situations who were able to question the status quo of long-working hours. These included illness or death of someone close, or of personal suffering – as in the case of an audit professional, who felt physically ill just looking at work emails. Situations such as these forced people to pause and reflect, for it was otherwise difficult to rationalise what happened, or to continue to look at things previously taken for granted in the same light.
Another factor that caused people to raise eyebrows over the time they kept—or had to keep—was past experiences. Some had the importance of family rooted in them from the word go, for their own parents managed to keep a good work-life balance. Others had worked in roles where there was better commitment to work-life balance. As such, they knew that life could be different and wanted to at least try to achieve the balance they so desired.
Still others were triggered by conflict arising from the time demands that arose from their other pursuits—such as parental or religious duties. These commitments made them aware of what they valued more. It also allowed them to understand that they can get work done without working long-hours, and showing a reduced interest in being the ideal professional, or redefining the role of an ideal professional as someone who had important roles outside of work.
Yet, this notion of questioning one’s role, termed role apprehension, is temporary, and does not force someone to take action unless there is a repetition of life-changing experiences, or when emotions are so intense that one can’t imagine not doing anything about the problem.
Addressing the symptoms or the problem?
Such action takes two forms—private and public role redefinition. Private role redefinition involves changing one’s own behaviour without changing the expectations from the role. To this end, one can impose a stronger work-life boundary, not work on weekends, or turn down role demands such as travel. These solutions, however, sometimes offer only a temporary fix, for there may be demands that are not being fulfilled, and consequently, people may wish to redefine their roles in public. This means using formal tools to shorten working hours, or reducing the demands that causes one to keep them, such as using the organisation’s flexible work arrangements, switching from a full-time to a part-time contract, or switching from external, client-facing roles to more internal positions.
In this sense, public role redefinition is better for it reduces the tension among professionals who face the gap between expectations and actual outcomes. It is also more sustainable, and perhaps the reason why it is the preferred choice among women wanting to switch gears.
But just because redefinition is possible does not mean it is easily achievable. Favourable conditions—at work and home—must be present in order to allow individuals to take the leap from where they are to where they want to be.
At the workplace, the availability of key organisational resources, team and supervisor support, and role models are key factors. For instance, in the case of the law firm, which was smaller than the audit firm, alternative career tracks were not possible, and as such those in the audit firm were better able to switch to less demanding positions.
Moreover, team dynamics play an important role in how long one spends at the office, and as such working fewer hours is only possible with the support of one’s peers and supervisors, whose understanding or lack thereof can make a huge difference. An example is the case of a part-time audit director, who had to quit because she could not get her team to back her desired schedule. This is because team members can be resentful of someone working fewer hours than they are.
Managers can play an important role in fostering a better work-life balance in their teams. They can set themselves up as role models who faced similar issues and thus are openly supportive of their team members.
Home is where the heart lies
On the personal front, career ambition, seniority, and family working arrangements are important things to keep in mind. This means that an employee may have to sacrifice a PSF’s traditional career path based on upward mobility in favour of something viewed as more valuable, such as parenthood.
But employees may still not be ready to sacrifice the material gains and decide to reduce working hours when a particular career milestone is achieved. Even so, deciding to reduce hours such as leaving for home earlier is easier for senior professionals, who enjoy higher levels of autonomy and can set their schedules without the need for approval.
It is also crucial to ensure that professionals—particularly those in dual-career relationships—work out a system that’s agreeable to all, especially if children are involved. This depends on personal situations such as where partners who are both earning can take an egalitarian approach to work and family. In some cases, role redefinition may not be possible because of the risk of career sanctions people cannot afford when there is only one source of family income.
Be careful what you wish for
To this end, it is important for employees to choose their battles wisely, for even if formal work-life balance policies exist, other factors such as seniority and team-support are critical for successfully redefining their role. Indeed, half of the professionals involved in this study who engaged in publicly changing their roles had to step down from their firms within two years of their interactions with the researchers.
Also, the fact that there is strength in numbers must be taken with a pinch of salt according to the researchers, for even though many professionals face a pull between their current and aspired roles, change is still limited to the local level, and does not necessarily translate to organisational transformation.
These systemic changes are not something that will happen overnight, for even in the medical field, concrete resistance to long-working hours was made only possible with the help of external regulation, which, moreover, does not apply to professional firms. To this end, it is important that firms introspect about whether their policies are being implemented in letter and spirit, or else risk being dubbed as sites of ‘organisational hypocrisy’, where those walking the tightrope between work and life also have the sword of Damocles dangling over their head.
- Views Profs Ioana Lupu, Bernard Leca and Maria Ruiz-Castro’s academic profiles
- Link up with Profs Lupu, Leca and Castro via LinkedIn
- Read a related article: Is Being proactive Draining? Depends on what motivates you…
- Discover ESSEC Business School France-Singapore-Morocco
- Study with an ESSEC Global MBA or EMBA.
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