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Are We Too Afraid to Leave Work on Time?

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Presenteeism is a well established practice in the management consultancy and legal professions where the workforce, being billed by the hour, are incentivised to work longer. But is the rest of the working population now too afraid to leave work on time?

A recent survey found that 30% of UK workers work more than 48 hours a week. This is a significant part of the workforce working longer than 9-5 (or 9-6, which I would say is the modern day equivalent), and from anecdotal evidence talking to a number of professionals in the city, the hours seem to be increasing.

With the threat of a triple dip recession, high street closures and job cuts are in the air. There is a sense of an unwritten expectation that we should be feeling lucky to keep our jobs and to make sure you do everything to please the bosses. Couple that with the fact that technology has us always on call, most people in management or executive jobs now end up working after hours, answering emails late at night or first thing in the morning on the commute to work.

I noticed this shift recently while working in a small finance department of a FTSE 100 company for a boss whose picture would appear under the entry workaholic in the Collins dictionary. The rest of the team were quite happy to leave at 6pm.

However as our division grew the new hires all seemed to be clones of the boss. The new recruits would often be the last in the office. Staying later than the actual revenue generating teams, doing work that wasn't that urgent. Late night "strategy" meetings that started at 6pm and finished around 9 suddenly became a weekly occasion.

Soon after there was a change in work attitudes. Everyone started leaving slightly later - 6pm became 7pm. To leave on time or, God forbid, early required some justification from your colleague that you were being unreasonable. Typical conversations sounded like:

"I've been away on a long business trip this week getting up at 4am and not getting back home till 10pm. I think it's ok if I leave a bit early at 5 today don't you think?"

"Yes of course, you've put in a lot of hours this week."

"Are you sure I won't be seen as slacking?"

"No of course not, go home!"

The only hall pass for leaving early are reserved for parents. Leaving to pick up your kids, or to tuck them in at night seems to be the only acceptable excuse. Even so, one needs to stress that they are taking their laptops with them just in case anything urgent comes up. (You don't need to say you are available by phone. This is assumed). If you are young and single stay put or face raised eyebrows.

This is the new phenomenon of working time guilt.

Unfortunately this presenteism is a killer for performance, leading to an overworked and frazzled work force. People need time off to recharge. Studies from the Harvard Business Review show that taking the time to recharge energy promotes better engagement, better performance and more creativity. Exactly what we need in this economy. Companies need to start focusing on results and managing the energy of the workforce.

Daniel Browne is an executive coach, entreprenuer and author of the new book The Energy Equation - how to be a top performer without burning yourself out. Daniel's blog and website can be found at www.danielebrowne.com, www.theenergyequationbook.com and twitter at @danielebrowne

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