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26 April, 2019 00:00 00 AM
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Changing work culture is not so simple

Justin Thomas

Jack Ma, the billionaire co-founder of e-commerce platform Alibaba, recently provoked a backlashwhen he endorsed the gruelling work culture that has helped make him one of China’s richest men. The so-called 996 routine – referring to the practice of working from 9am to 9pm, six days per week – is common among China’s tech companies and start-ups – and, according to  Ma, a “huge blessing that many companies and employees do not have the opportunity to have”.

He added: “We do not need those who comfortably work eight hours. If you do not do 996 when you are young, when will you?” The response was fast and furious. A group of software developers who had taken to Microsoft-owned platform GitHub in March to protest working conditions have since attracted support from more than 200,000 people.

Others have posted a blacklist of 150-plus companies that demand extra hours with little or no pay. And one person tweeted: “Go to bed at 9. Sleep 9 hours. Wake up at 6. Work smarter not harder.” In jobs where the bulk of our labour is cognitive, the question of how many hours you work is not always an easy question to answer. We might, for example, spend eight hours in an office but then spend considerably more time thinking about work while commuting. Some of us might also find ourselves checking business emails on smartphones or tablets at the dinner table, spend our evenings either fretting about or planning our to-do list for the next day or chewing over conversations with colleagues. If that is not mentally exhausting enough, we also expend energy worrying about job security or spend endless hours wondering how best to get ahead. Even when we are not talking shop, we are often thinking about it. Psychologically speaking, many of us are already straining under the pressures of a self-imposed 24/7 work schedule. The health implications of overworking are manifold. Research suggests the longer your working hours, the greater the risk of health complaints, both physical and psychological, ranging from depression and heart failure to premature death.

This problem is particularly well documented in Japan, where karoshi means death from overwork. A white paper published by the Japanese government in 2016 suggested that one in five Japanese workers were at risk of death from overwork. The government has taken heed and this month, Japan’s new work reform law came into effect, limiting overtime to 45 hours per month.

Meanwhile a new global study of 13,000 workers by health insurance firm Cigna found as many as 88 per cent of women and 85 per cent of men found their jobs stressful. One in 10 found the level of stress “unmanageable”. In the UAE, nearly half of all workers said they struggled to cope with their workloads.

We cannot, however, enforce proper work practices through legislation. Even if we had a strict nine-to-five workday policy, some of us would still fail to clock off in our heads. Some employees absolutely love what they do; they are energised by their work and passionate in their pursuit of perfection, but they are in the minority. For this reason, optimum working hours cannot always be neatly articulated as a static, one-size fits all set of numbers. The question is not how many hours we should or should not work but rather, how good are we at switching off? In the words of the distinguished scientist John Teasdale, how skilfully can we shift from “doing mode” into “being mode”?

The writer is a professor of psychology at Zayed University, UAE

 

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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