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The myth of long working hours

“Sorry we can’t hire you – you are from New Zealand. Don’t they finish work at 4pm over there. What do you do afterwards?” 

Amazingly, I am not making this up. In the one year since I moved back to India I have regularly got the same reaction. Kiwis don’t work long hours so they musn’t be working hard is the general perception. In fact I came across a job advertisement that unashamedly mentioned that “please do not apply if you like to leave at the appointed leaving time” – a shameful HR practice if I may add.

But is working long hours the same as working hard? In my opinion, it is a myth.

In the Indian workplace there are generally three kinds of these so called hard workers a.k.a long-hours workers.

1. The Spoon – We all know this type. This boss ka chamcha actually only starts work once the boss is in the office. You won’t see him around much otherwise as he is downstairs having ‘chai’ or busy getting updated on the latest office gossip. Well, if you spend 4 of the average 8 hour working day simply chatting and wasting time it is no wonder that you need to actually “work” 12 hours.

2. Mr. Do-it-Later: You will spot him glued to his computer often with a look of intense concentration. Oh, he works so hard you think – yes he does. On his Facebook status, his Twitter feed and countless other useless things that need to be done. Basically everything except his actual job. I am a Gemini and known to be a type that can’t focus. When I act like Mr. Do it Later even I end up doing a 12 hour day.

3. The Focus-Locust: Focus is good. Attention to detail is good. But so is knowing when to stop and let go. While the founder or a new startup may find it hard to stop, it is important to do so. Rather than trying to do it yourself – learn to delegate. There is no glory in working 16 hour days non stop till you are 40 and then having a mid-life crisis as you don’t remember the last quality time you had with family.

The issue with working hard v/s working long is the mind-set. In NZ, if you don’t finish your work within the eight – ten hours you are given, you are viewed as being an ineffective and unproductive worker. Here, if you leave on the dot at 6.30 after putting in 9 hours of the day, you are seeing as someone that is letting down the team and going home early to enjoy. Well, isn’t that the point?

The eight hour workday was originally created with the intent that from 24 hours in the day, you devote 8 to work, 8 to play and 8 to sleep. 

You work so you can live better not live so you can work more.

Yes, I regularly started at 8am and finished by 4 – but that was because I worked hard at being effective not hard at impressing the boss or working hard just for the sake of doing so. In fact research indicates that the brain cannot concentrate beyond 6-7 hours of intense activity and productivity levels drop by 50% after 8 hours of work. Remember the time when finishing the last part of the report seemed to take hours – it’s because of this. If you had quit at that point and started fresh in the morning, it wouldnt have taken those extra 3 hours and you could have had an enjoyable meal with the family instead. 

Working long hours has also been linked to a range of heart diseases (notice how you always snack on those chocolates and vada pav’s once its 7pm and the team is still hanging around doing ‘work’). But it’s not only the tendency to eat junk it’s also because of the mental stress that comes with trying to focus when your brain is tired.

Globally, Indians are known to be the bees — those “hard-working” kinds that work for 12 – 14 hours a day. Next time you do a 12 hour day though think about it – working long is not synonymous to working hard. Or being effective. 

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39 Comments

  1. welcome back perzen!

    we missed reading your posts 🙂

  2. Exactly the thing which needs to be adopted throughout. I myself have set the office timings at my place as 8 to 5 (sorry, not 4 pm). Of course I have a staff only 2 right now. But I wish I would be able to keep these timings for atleast my 80% of staff in future. 

    I feel whoever is working with these timings would automatically become a early riser, and would also have few evening hours for himself and family.

  3. Amazing lines Perzen: “You work so you can live better not live so you can work more.”

    I am going to get it framed in my office. Seriously!

  4. Still it is well known fact that the de-facto standard to measure work in Indian IT Space is based on Hours.

  5. Hi Shyam,

    Thanks for your comments and it’s great to know that you are leading the change. The point isnt to leave all the time at 5pm on the dot but to train your mind to work effectively and ensure that you can finish everything within the hours that are allocated to you. Only when efficiency rather than number of hours becomes the mode of measuring an employee’s performance will there be a change in the corporate attitude.

    And early rising – I think I could write another post on the benefits of this 🙂

  6. Wonderfully written and to the point…I wish people would understand the difference between Working Hard and Working Long Hours…

  7. Thanks so much Anamika for your comments – it’s a great philosophy to put everything into perspective when you feel like you are drowning in work. 

  8. Abhishek,

    Thanks for your comments. Yes, I am aware that it is the de-facto standard but as an entrepreneur community we should try to be the change we want to see in the world (isn’t that why we are starting our own enterprises in any case?). It may not seem like a big thing but even if only 10% of thousands of businesses let their workers leave on time without feeling guilty that is hundreds of moms that can better balance their careers and lives not to mention so many hours of family time 🙂

  9. One of the best posts I’ve seen in ages! I’ve experienced the same with Americans, Russians and the Irish in my previous stints. No smoke breaks, no long lunch breaks! To the work and to the point.

    Great post again!

  10. A fourth set of people also exists – who report on time to work, but spend 15/20 min every hour catching a smoke that they end up working 12 hours.. And then complain that the workload is affecting their work-life balance !!!!

     

  11. Brilliant. Couldn’t agree more

  12. Great Post, Perzen. Did this incident lead to you turning an entrepreneur? What do you do?

  13. Thanks Chetan for your comments. I work as a Communications Manager for a innovation accelerator. I.e. we help  startups maximise their impact. Would love to be an entrepreneur some day but I believe in being the change I want to see and hence the post. 

  14. Haha Sriram. I completely agree.. I come from a hospitality background and if you don’t smoke it is actually a hazard for you as you never get a break thanks to all the so called addicts taking a smoke break every 15 – 20 minutes. I don’t know how people like that get any actual work done as research indicates it normally takes the brain 10 – 15 mins to start focusing on the task at hand.

  15. Great. Keep up the good work. Cheers.

  16. Brilliant Brilliant Brilliant! It had to take somebody who’s worked away from India to come back and write this! The problem with our nation is our mindset! And somewhere it comes from the attitude of working hard and slogging it off till you don’t have anything left in you. Because some people ‘work hard’ , others join in under forced compulsion; because some people don’t have a healthy family life, they love to sit late in the office, making others join in too. Hope and wish that as a nation we become more sensible and that people work hard towards leading good and fuller lives, not just working hard to spend more time at the office and earn more. 

    I think i went off track there! But who cares 😀  brilliant article 🙂

  17. Prateek,

    Thank you so much for your kind words and comments. Completely agree that in reality there are only a few real “hard-workers” the rest are simply doing it under compulsion. In fact I had a boss once that stayed late because his children would not study in the evenings if he was around so he purposely went home at 9.30pm each night. Unfortunately, that also meant that most of the Spoon category of workers also hung around at work listening to music, watching cricket in the lunch room and doing other random thing that would be so much more fun to do with your family !

  18. True! Something’s gone wrong with everybody here! It is a new breed of individuals who have all been turned into ‘workaholics’, because as you mentioned in the beginning of your article, either you work till late, or you are good for nothing. 

  19. Very true…Believe me , my life has changed upside down because of this…I wont completely blame the “long hours”,but it was a major factor …I feel very strongly about this .

    • I observed that non-locals/bachelors stay back late ,when asked , the answer was “what will I do going home”?In IT office ,we get PC ,music ,internet ,late night snacks/dinner and free ride home.
    • I will go home after my boss goes home

    Unfortunately, this sets a wrong precedence.When I tried to leave at 5 p.m ,I was asked “Why HALF DAY” today?This was after i had finished my work for the day.We focus too much on “hours” then “work”..I still decided to continue with my habit of leaving at 5 p.m.After 1 week I was called in a meeting and told that it seems that I dont have “enough work” and need to take some more work..

  20. I don’t have an office wall, but this definitely is going on my facebook wall..!!

  21. Totally agree… Very well written article… Superlike..!!

  22. Absolutely Echo your sentiments here … long working hours = better employees !!! that’s exactly what the philosophy is, in the Progressive Corporate World that we all work in. Efficiency / Productivity …. What the hell are these jargon … How much time have you spent on your desk / on field in your job is what is counted. that’s it .

  23. Bless you for articulating this!

  24. Nameet, Abhishek and Manik – thank you for your kind words and your comments.

  25. It’s good to hear that many entrepreneurs agree with the views echoed here. I remember the one time my boss asked us to work on weekends just to convince our client that we were committed people.

    Work culture here sucks.

  26. Worth Reading!

  27. Perzen, i like the way you have presented your view point from an NRI returned perspective. Albeit, I agree on the hours dont mean efficiency bit:) but the working hours set by different companies have their own backgrounds. What I am effectively saying is that timing does matter and past experiences set future attitude!

    My thoughts on work culture and timing in office: –

    I have worked for several corporates with different work cultures (mostly MNCs) where one had asked me to work from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and not bother to report the extra hours, there were others who asked me to walkin only after 10:30 a.m. and leave by 5:30 pm with 1 hour snack and lunch breaks!! In both cases plenty of work happenned and we were never seen as inefficent or complainants of being overstressed or over worked!

    While a pure general view that “leaving at the appointed end time” may be extreme, it may have evolved out of general workers hired in the past! They probably were not the 9 to 4 efficient kinds hence requiring the extra push to stick around!

    My point here is that it is not the Indian work culture to blame but the poor ‘plan in setting up a work culture’ that should be addressed. For instance I run my own company today called digicat, where we do not have any assigned starting and ending hours. I have an employee who walks into the office between 10 and 12 noon and leaves between 4 to 6 p.m. I also have another employee who comes in by 11 a.m. and leaves by 9:30 p.m. he has his own set of keys to the office! We do not work on Saturdays and Sundays.

    The timing is set purely by the result and that is what we are particular about! The rest falls in place and I see almost all employees clocking about 35 to 48  hours a week.

  28. Thanks Pawan for your comments. It’s great to know the initiatives you have taken at Digicat to implement flexible working hours. Research proves indeed that when no set timings are given to employees, employees themselves will work until they have accomplished their tasks. However, like you said because the process around working hours is not implemented correctly, in most organisations, flexibility is still not a reality. 

  29. Dear Perzen,

    Thanks for your reply. You mentioned research proves that no set timing is equal to better accomplished work. Would you happen to have access to any of these reports? It would be great to use the report to corrugate your blog as well as for self confidence in moving this kind of work culture around. 🙂

  30. Totally agree. Since I started my own company, I work less number of hours but I am amazed at how productive I am – simply because I focus on my work and not on trying to look busy!

  31. Hi Perzen, I was in Australia for 2 years, I totally agree with your views. Us Indians are basically labourers compared to the balanced life people in such countries live. As they say “never give in” we Indians have a tendency to give in whether its your boss, your colleagues or your work. I am glad somebody got this point up, its about time we need to improve on our work style.

  32. Dear Pawan,

    Sure thing – don’t have access to the reports but here are some articles that prove my point:

    1. Telecommuting, Productivity & Flex Time

    2.http://www.thegrindstone.com/2011/05/24/office-politics/study-flexible-work-hours-boost-productivity/

    These are a little bit dated but still relevant regardless.

    Also a great read check out the company that pays people to go on leave! Wouldn’t you love to work there now: Full Contact pays workers US$7500 to go on leave – on TOP of paid leave!

  33. Thanks Avinash for your comments and kind work. Like you said, it’s not about working the odd extra hour here and there but about the importance placed on balance and not acting like labourers. 

  34. Hi Shyam

    Wish u all the luck and strength to maintain this timing. When we started our ad agency, we planned to finish office timing by 6/6:30 unlike typical ad agency where generally time extends to 9pm. 

    But employees are more comfortable in the typical timing. I don’t know why people can’t come early to leave early and enjoy life…

  35. I remember reading Narayana Murthy’s (Infosys) interview where he said ” People who sit late are not necessarily hardworking, they don’t manage their time”. So the mantra is to work smart.

    cheers, Robin

  36. Thanks Robin for your comment. It is great that people like Narayana Murthy recognise the value of managing your time effectively. Now, let’s convince everyone in the middle of the ranks to do the same. Because like you said it is smart work that gets you places. No one won awards for working long. you win awards for achieving goals.

  37. The smoke’y’ thing is nicely mentioned in the comments below, well addressed to the foreign culture and the Indian private companies.

    But in India’n ecosystem the more common thing is ‘ek cup chai ki pyali’. It’s been seen as an honor in the government offices to find people sipping “CHAI KI PYALI” time and again, be it while gazing on the computer screen or be it while talking to some one. The useless conversation extends from few minutes to hours with those CHAI KI PYALI’s in hand. I believe that by the time of retirement of a govt. officer’s they must be having more tea running through their veins than the blood. Indians do believe that sipping in TEA keeps them awake and makes them focus on their work, I wonder if it is true in terms of gaining focus? Research says that, it normally takes more than 5 mins for a ‘just tea drunk person’ to settle down and focus. Now if you add 10 cups of tea ,in a day, woao.. u guess it right you are wasting more than an hour just to settle down.

    After work you normally bang on tea cups, instead of beer mugs, to extend the hours in offices just to tweet their boss the next day ” I was in office till 7:00PM yesterday”. 

    So ek cup chai ho jai?

  38. Pawan, completely agree with your comments that rather than smoke breaks in India the focus is more on tea breaks. Interesting statistics about how long it takes to settle down after having tea – wasn’t aware of those 🙂 

  39. Excellent article. It captures the problems besetting most if not entire Indian workplace.

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