Stop glorifying unhealthy work practices and take back your time

Stop glorifying unhealthy work practices and take back your time

Unofficial working hours have grown longer at alarming rates around the world. (Shutterstock)

Imagine, if you will, a world in which working 12 hours a day is not only the norm, but is considered a testament to one’s strong work ethic and commitment. In this imaginary world, there are no such things as regular office hours or weekends, and you must surrender any timepiece you might have before entering your workplace. People’s time no longer belongs to themselves or their families; it is held captive to a never-ending cycle of work obligations.

This world did, in fact, exist in the second half of the 18th century during the Industrial Revolution, which began in Great Britain and ushered in a number of technical innovations and inventions including the steam engine, the electrical telegraph and the assembly line.

Overall, the Industrial Revolution resulted in positive outcomes for humanity, such as convenience, urbanization and an abundance of resources. Nevertheless, it did not come without new challenges that continue to affect people around the world, including the pollution and waste that are the byproducts of the machines and chemicals used in industrial processes.

Another notable change to people’s lives as a result of this rapid industrialization, and the resulting changes in modes of production and economic structures, was altered working practices. Many people, including children, were obliged to labor for long hours in factories performing repetitive, sometimes dangerous, tasks. Work was no longer seasonal or limited by the amount of available daylight, as it had been in the past. Factory owners were reluctant to leave their machines idle for long, and so they attempted to maximize output by keeping them running as much as possible, typically implementing a “sun-up to sun-down” work day. As a result, it was common for people to work up to 18 hours a day, six days a week.

Such working conditions seem unreal and completely disparate to our modern way of life. However, are they really so different from our present-day reality?

If you reread the opening paragraph, it is likely you can easily relate to most of the things it describes. While you can now wear your watch to work, unofficial working hours have grown longer at alarming rates around the world. Most countries mandate at least one day off a week, and yet more and more people are working during weekends with no extra pay.

We do not raise an eyebrow to this reality because it is unaccounted for, since the extra hours of toil fall outside the official working day. Employers applaud those who work unpaid overtime and on their days off. They post photographs on social media of new mothers going back to work mere days after giving birth and tell people that such women should be their role models because they embody commitment, a strong work ethic, loyalty and excellence.

I will never forget the day one manager declared to a few of us during an annual performance review that we had failed to “exceed expectations.” A person was only judged to have exceeded expectations if he or she produced an exceptional report that they had worked on in their own time in the evenings and on weekends, the manager said. Simply doing a spectacular job during office hours did not exceed expectations.

This was my first job and I was made to believe that if I wanted to prove myself, being productive during the official eight-hour working day was not going to cut it. I needed to surrender more of my time. Twelve years, two children, and countless anxiety attacks and sleepless nights later, I realize that this was not only unhealthy but also unjust.

I probably would not have decided to address this issue had I not noticed that this pattern has not been broken and that many employers continue to put the wrong role models in the spotlight. I was alarmed to hear young employees boasting about working until 6 or 7 in the evening. I was horrified at the realization that young mothers who returned to work less than 10 days after having a baby are now idolized by our youth and hailed as models of work ethic and patriotism by media channels.

I was horrified at the realization that young mothers who returned to work less than 10 days after having a baby are now idolized by our youth and hailed as models of work ethic and patriotism by media channels.

Maria Hanif Al-Qassim

We have an obligation to tell our young people, before they embark on their professional journeys, that the key to success is balance, and that hard work and time management apply to your family life just as much as they do to work.

In the early 2000s, filmmaker John de Graaf launched a campaign known as “Take Back Your Time.” In a book of the same name, de Graaf and a group of experts and writers explored the effects of overwork, overscheduling, time pressure and stress on our health, relationships, children and the environment. They proposed personal, corporate and legislative solutions to combat overwork and what they called “time poverty.”

Even after all the studies that found achieving a healthy work-life balance actually increases productivity, advocates such de Graaf find themselves swimming upstream against the tide of a cultural assumption that a longer workday is next to godliness.

I have yet to see social-media posts, newspapers, magazines or any other media channels highlight the stories of people who have succeeded in achieving some degree of healthy work-life balance. I have yet to hear of any index or prestigious national or international award that recognizes employers who not only encourage productivity within working hours, but reward employees who commit to their families, health and well-being just as much as they commit to their professional goals.

By all means, recognize the efforts of your exemplary employees and celebrate their achievements and hard work. But do not glorify the neglect of their health and their relationships for the sake of their career. After all, it is meant to be a day job, not a day-and-night job.

A headline that reads “Committed employee returns to work days after having a baby,” or a selfie of yourself still in the office hours past the time you were supposed to finish for the day are not impressive; they are heartbreaking and alarming.

It is time to glorify the healthy work-life balance. It is time to take back our time.

  • Maria Hanif Al-Qassim is an Emirati from Dubai who writes on development, gender and social issues. Twitter: @maria_hanif
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