How Many Hours Should Managers Work?

Posted by: Nigel Girling Post Date: 9th March 2016

As a manager, you’ve probably felt pressure to work long hours in order to tackle your ever-growing to-do list and meet escalating targets.

But how often should you burn the midnight oil, and at what point do you call it a day? Let’s take a look at the factors that contribute to managers’ working hours, before getting down to how many hours managers should actually be working.

An ‘always on’ culture

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A recent study by the Chartered Management Institute showed that managers are typically working an extra 29 days per year, more than cancelling out their annual leave entitlement.

The report refers to the growth of an ‘always-on’ culture in organisations, where digital devices mean that managers are effectively on-call or engaged with work activities such as emails and voicemails even when they are at home or on holiday.

In the 1990s, much was said or written about the concept of ‘work-life balance’, often with reference to parental responsibilities. It seems we need to re-energise and re-focus this debate again in 2016 to address the issue of manager burn-out and the impact of stress on leadership style, relationships (at work and at home) and coherent decision making.

Pressure versus stress

The impacts of this constant pressure are profound, affecting energy levels, mood, the ability to focus, and the capacity to think strategically and creatively.

Professor Cooper, one of the researchers, has long been a thinker and writer on the subject of pressure versus stress, and I recall using one of his excellent videos on the subject as part of a leadership development programme nearly 20 years ago.

He makes the point that pressure itself is not the enemy; in fact, pressure is necessary to achieve peak performance. However, when perceived pressure exceeds the perceived ability to cope, stress follows and is extremely detrimental, both to performance and to well-being.

Pressure and organisational change

Other factors are seen to be driving the increase in hours worked by managers, including organisational change initiatives. The table below, taken from the CMI report, demonstrates the most common types of change activities.

The report concludes that these factors, coupled with the focus on growth or survival that generates so much activity and anxiety among the management community, have created a perceived need for managers to be at work almost 24/7. This contributes to culture of ‘presenteeism’, where managers are afraid to be seen as being anything other than 100% focused on their work and the performance and achievement of their teams.

A cycle of abuse

As an observer and commentator, I would add that the levels of performance paranoia that such situations generate has another invidious impact. It creates a cycle of abuse.

Managers under excessive pressure nearly always radiate their stress to others. Almost inevitably, the unreasonable expectations placed upon managers give rise to equally unreasonable expectations placed on their teams.

The perfectly sensible desires of staff to balance their commitments at work and home start to be seen as ‘shirking’ or as unfair on their colleagues. Soon, no-one wants to be seen as the first to go home and staff work later and later and for longer and longer. Holidays get cancelled. Weekends and evenings get incorporated into the working week. Relationships between staff get strained. The home relationships of staff get damaged, creating further stress and inhibiting performance.

Before too long, no-one is operating at their optimum capability. The longer the hours get, the less effective the actual minutes become, until a critical point is reached and there is melt-down. The fight-or-flight mechanisms kick in and staff (and often managers) either break down or walk out.

Staff start to consider their options and may start seeking alternative roles. Murphy’s Law being what it is, you can almost guarantee that the most capable and talented will be the first to go. They are, after all, usually the ones who are most in-demand.

Taking a reasonable approach

Sound like a prophecy of doom? While it may be an extreme view of events, such a scenario is being acted out in hundreds of workplaces across the nation as we speak.

As a leader and manager, of course you have a responsibility to your organisation. A responsibility to deliver a good return on time and resources invested. You are expected to show loyalty and commitment and to generate good performance from your team.

But you also have a responsibility to your other stakeholders, including your people and their families. Twentieth century leadership requires you to be ethical and engaging, to empower and develop, to nurture talent and to create a climate of innovation. You have to find a point of balance; balancing the needs of all stakeholders and protecting the future success of the organisation, not just its performance this week or this month.

How many hours should managers work?

To get to the point, I would suggest that in most cases, 45 hours maximum is reasonable, with at least one day at the weekend ‘protected’, and a time limit on involvement in the evenings. I turn off my mobile phone at 6.30pm. Sundays are for family time.

Yes, sometimes I start work at 5.30am or finish at 8pm, but not every week, and not just sitting at my desk ploughing through emails. Such early/late sessions are for specific purposes: meetings, events, development activities, creative sessions and the like.

You need to find the right balance for you. Learn to ‘hear’ your mind and body and spot the signals where you are becoming unproductive or causing stress to others. Refresh and rejuvenate your mind as often as you can. Get some fresh air and exercise. Eat well. Avoid excessive drinking. Avoid excessive medication too. In fact, excessive anything is generally unwise over long periods. Just remember, you are all you’ve got, so use yourself wisely.

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