Workspace: Everybody’s No Longer Working for the Weekend

Everybody’s No Longer Working for the Weekend

. . . because they're working over the weekend. Enough!

By Alison Maitland

Everybody's No Longer Working for the Weekend

Alison Maitland is co-author of Future Work and Why Women Mean Business. A former longtime writer and editor for the Financial Times, she directs The Conference Board's Council for Diversity in Business and is a senior visiting fellow at Cass Business School, London. She can be reached via alisonmaitland.com.

Alison MaitlandI sat straight up when I heard Jeff Rubin, the respected Canadian economist, at a conference in Vancouver. Warning that a low-growth era looms ahead for the West, one of the solutions he offered was job-sharing.

It is rare to hear someone give such serious treatment to job-sharing—that is, when two employees split the responsibilities of a single role. In his book The End of Growth, Rubin cites the German government-subsidized job-sharing program known as Kurzarbeit, credited with saving more than 500,000 jobs in the last recession. Work-sharing, he argues, not only means fewer unemployed, it also keeps skills active, and offers an attractive approach to older people eager to remain in the labor force to top-up their shrinking pensions.

As someone who has successfully shared a job in the past, when my children were very young, I would suggest that work-sharing is also the answer to another, more personal challenge: workaholism.

Those of us with workaholic tendencies often love what we do so much, and are so ridiculously keen to do it well, that we forget what time it is, or that there is a meal to make, or eat, and people waiting to share it. We also like to feel indispensable (which is, sadly, just silly because none of us actually is).

The great thing about sharing a job is that you really must not work when it's your turn to be off. If you do, you risk treading on your job-share partner's toes and ruining the whole agreement. Sure, your mind may keep ticking about the challenges of your job while you're out coaching a soccer team, taking the kids to the park, or studying for a master's degree in organizational psychology. But you cannot let those thoughts suck you back into work until it's your turn to be on again. It's a great lesson in the suppression of ego.

This got me thinking about other measures to curb workaholic tendencies. There's lots of advice out there: “set boundaries,” “get support,” “delegate.” My measures are more drastic, as you'll read shortly. But drastic is needed in the face of the sheer pressure that our political and work cultures place upon us. Politicians' relentless lip service to the rights of hardworking people has become so common as to be clichéd. I have nothing against hard work. As I've said, I do a lot of it. Nevertheless, it is not the only thing in life, and the single focus on work devalues those who are too young or too old to work, or are unable to do so for other reasons, while it ratchets up the pressure on us hamsters to spin ever faster in our wheels.

Even post-crisis, extreme working is nowhere more prevalent than in investment banking. A raft of U.S. and European banks including Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, and Credit Suisse recently announced they are seeking to ease the long hours of their junior staff and interns by discouraging them from working the whole weekend. I had been under the mistaken impression that “weekends” were so called because they were meant to be different from the workweek. It is a stark situation indeed when a change in working culture involves telling people to take off what should normally be their free time anyway.

Many people get a kick from overworking themselves. In a Harvard Business Review article some years back, economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett and consultant Carolyn Buck Luce wrote about their research into people working seventy or more hours a week, with heavy travel and performance demands. Three-quarters of respondents said they loved the pace, the recognition, the intellectual challenge, and the high financial rewards. Hewlett and Luce titled their piece “Extreme Jobs: The Dangerous Allure of the 70-Hour Workweek.”

Dangerous, in fact, for many reasons, not least the delusion that your boss will forever love you for working madly. Yes, in the short term, your supervisor may see that you're highly committed and worth promoting. But bosses change, and people get taken for granted. One workaholic I knew ended up quitting his employer in bitter disappointment that his dedication over the years ultimately counted for very little.

It takes a shock to shake some people out of their passionate affair with work. Assuming you're willing to accept that workaholism is bad for your health and relationships, not the most productive way of working, and unsustainable in the long run, here are some ways to curb your addiction.

Have a baby. That surely won't work, you may say (especially if you're male). It will make you more of a workaholic because you need to a) make more money to keep the family in diapers and b) escape the chaos at home by rushing back to the relative order of the office.

It doesn't have to be like that, even if you are the boss. Lily Lapenna is founder and CEO of MyBnk, which educates young people in money and business to prepare them for work. “I was a workaholic,” she says. “I always felt when I set up MyBnk that I was really overwhelmed and working really hard and that that was the only way.”

Then Lapenna, whom the World Economic Forum has recognized as a “Young Global Leader,” had a baby and encountered a short-lived crisis when her daughter had to be hospitalized. “I decided I'd look at my life in a different way,” she says. “I didn't have to be that person who worked until 12 every night.”

On her return to work, she appointed one of her senior staff to be her deputy; the two of them now share the running of her growing nonprofit organization, both working flexibly and less than a full week. Lapenna says: “You can have impact by working more effectively in less time. I wish I'd learned that sooner.”

Fall off a cliff. And then have a baby. That's what happened to Sally Bridgeland, now CEO of BP Pension Trustees Ltd. She had a serious skiing accident and found herself lying next to another precipice, thinking about what she would do with her second chance.

Few people have such a near-death experience and live to tell the tale, but it's possible to imagine oneself in such a situation. What would you do? Bridgeland realized that her successful career was only one of the things she wanted to have achieved in life, and that she simply had to make time for the rest, including parenthood. As CEO, she now works from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then helps her son with his homework. She says the perspective she gains from not being stuck in back-to-back meetings all day makes her a better leader.

Take a mid-career gap year. This is easier and less painful than the two previous steps, and something that Bridgeland advocates for all mid-level managers. “It really makes you stop and think,” she told me. “It's engineering an artificial midlife quest, rather than having a midlife crisis.”

Since working lives are set to get much longer, it makes sense to have a real break halfway through. Assuming, of course, you have the financial means, taking a hiatus from employment for the workaholic might at first seem like torture. But it's surely better than coming off your skis and breaking lots of bones. After a while, you'll get used to the calmer pace and shrug off the craving for perfection. By the end of your break, you might even be ready to come back to work—and share your job.

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