We have a duty to redesign jobs

We’re productively damaging our futures – mortgaging our later years by burning out in our earlier years

A recent train journey saw me sat behind four macho loud ‘executives’. They were talking about a colleague who had recently had their first child and praising how they still put in shifts at all hours, logging on at 2am and making calls to the US at 11pm.

They were like warriors in a time of siege, or special agents who’d gone undercover and shelved every bit of their lives except the mission. But these people were in some form of wealth management; they were not performing life-saving operations or humanitarian aid.

I’m really concerned by this fetishisation of ‘hard work’ as involving long hours, constant attention to work emails and calls, and regular shifts of 16-plus hours a day with no break or downtime except a few hours’ sleep snatched when finally at home or commuting.

What concerns me most is the assault on our energy this causes. I put in long shifts; sometimes travelling on planes at silly hours and so on. But I am acutely aware of my energy and I manage it. I know others can’t be so choosy about when they do their work, but knowing when your energy is optimal is as critical as knowing your processes and compliance rules. People who are tired do not make good decisions.

That’s why I am about to research and write more about human energy at work, particularly the impact of the design of the organisation people work in/with, the flow of work, the idea of regenerating energy and breaks, wellness and sleep routines, nutrition and hydration, and mindful moments and creative stimuli.

One interesting theory I’m struck by is the Pomodoro Technique. Essentially consisting of highly-focused concentration on a key task for 25 minutes followed by a break, it is attempting to provide a sense of urgency that doesn’t cause us stress. The technique has some science backing it up and many people swear by it. Another concept looking at how we can focus better is Cal Newport’s Deep Work philosophy. It entails distraction-free concentrating periods where complex and challenging things do not compete with inboxes, social media feeds and phone calls.

These valiant efforts are ignoring one key factor though – we’ve hit peak work. We’ve been subject to lean methodology, total quality management, process re-engineering and more. We’ve effectively tuned the human working system to the point where there are no more notes to hit. So most attempts at time management are futile. We are at breaking point perhaps.

One look at the statistics on mental ill health and stress-related absences from work will underline my point. Health and Safety Executive statistics say that 40% of workplace absences in 2016/17 were stress related. We’re not over-diagnosing stress we’re under-designing relief, regeneration and responsible energy management.

Something has to be done or else we’re productively damaging our futures – mortgaging our later years by burning out in our earlier years, and setting expectations and writing cheques the bank of human energy cannot cash.

As HR and OD professionals we have a duty of care. Productivity rises are stubbornly elusive and we appear to be putting more in and getting less out. So instead of thinking of people as problem-solving robots we need more designed-in features of regenerative activities, more recognition of the need to have less punishing expectations, and better management of energy levels as crucial factors in job design.

At the moment we’re like the woodcutter with the blunt axe, too busy to sharpen it. So it’s time we in HR sharpened our design axe and allowed our people to do the same.

Perry Timms is chief energy officer at PTHR and HR magazine’s fifth Most Influential Thinker 2018