Permission to pause

Ethos magazine
3 min readApr 17, 2021

By Hira Ali for Ethos magazine: issue 12| April 2020

The UK is renowned for its long hours culture. Workers average around 36.5 hours per week, but many work as many as 60 or 70 hours. Technology means that we can be available all day and we can always take work home. Even in under normal circumstances, those extra hours worked at home often go unpaid. Even if you’ve completed an eight hour day at your physical or virtual office, there’s no additional recognition or compensation for all the hours worked beyond that time. Earlier last year, trade union Federation reported that over five million workers put in an average of 7.5 extra unpaid hours a week, missing out on an average of £6,532.

Presenteeism (defined as showing up to work despite illness or other medical conditions) has witnessed a steady rise. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that 83% of its respondents had observed presenteeism in their organisation — with a quarter saying the problem was getting worse. People continue to sideline both mental and physical health problems in favour of being ‘seen’ at work — even if they’re not operating at normal levels of productivity.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen a dramatic shift towards telecommuting. This last month alone has witnessed the beginning of what could be a work from home revolution. Many would agree that this sudden turn around has brought about a much needed and refreshing pause in our incredibly busy and fast paced lives. Working from home has cut out our daily commute, and has given us more flexibility with our home life and families.

However, these advantages can also work against our favour if we’re not careful. Statistics have already evidenced a jump in the everyday working hours across countries including US, UK, France, Spain and Canada, with many people starting work earlier than usual.

One of the main downsides of working from home is that we never leave work. Nor do we clock out. Finding it difficult to ‘switch off’ encroaches into what would have ordinarily been family or relaxation time. With no commute distractions, the work hours blur into down time, leading to burnout.

Long working hours can lead to increased fatigue and stress, and decreased productivity. It can trigger health damages including musculoskeletal disorders, mental health issues, obesity and increased risk of heart failures. It’s now more important than ever to schedule breaks from time to time and consciously unwind from the daily overwhelm. We need to give ourselves permission to slow down.

We’re already experiencing a global pandemic and the uncertainty and sudden lifestyle shifts are overwhelming as it is. Combining them with long hours is a recipe for a wellbeing disaster. It’s crucial to hit the pause button and invest time doing something we enjoy that will reinvigorate our mind and soul.

Eventually, this work from home experiment does beg the question whether such an arrangement will change our future of work, even after normality resumes? We know that Covid-19 will impact the world of work as we know it and that the pandemic will expedite a shift in the work from home trend. Organisations will increasingly see the positives of telecommuting — particularly as opposed to not working at all. Companies may even realise that it’s possible to replace time consuming meetings with emails and that video conferences could effectively substitute the need for air or even ground travel, positively impacting our climate and our planet.

Often we don’t value an option until it’s the only one left. After ramping up the remote infrastructure, this experiment may turn out to be a socially acceptable one after all. Who knows?

I’m not entirely sure if a complete shift is possible or even useful. When all this is over, adopting and leveraging the best of both worlds could be a more feasible outcome. Employees can choose, depending on their individual circumstances and the nature of their work.

Either way, one thing is for sure. Human beings are incredibly adaptable and resilient creatures — we never really know what we are capable of enduring until we’ve experienced it. So don’t be too surprised if you find yourself getting used to or even enjoying the new norm, whatever that is.

Hira Ali is a leadership expert and author of Her Way To The Top: A Guide To Smashing The Glass Ceiling.

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