Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University’s business school, has a great piece in the Harvard Business Review about how men and women deal with pressure to be an ideal worker— to be always-on, always available for one more job, always ready to head to Dusseldorf to brief the client on the status of the change management program rather than go to their brother’s wedding.
The picture that emerges is, to put it simply, incredibly depressing.
My research revealed that men were just as likely as women to have trouble with these “always on” expectations. However, men often coped with these demands in ways that differed strikingly. Women who had trouble with the work hours tended to simply to take formal accommodations, reducing their work hours, but also revealing their inability to be true ideal workers, and they were consequently marginalized within the firm. In contrast, many men found unobtrusive, under-the-radar ways to alter the structure of their work (such as cultivating mostly local clients, or building alliances with other colleagues), such that they could work predictable schedules in the 50 to 60 hour range.
In other words, women tended to be honest about the fact that they weren’t interested in devoting every waking moment to the job, and took the hit.
Men, in contrast, found ways to evade the rules, construct the appearance of being super-devoted, and organize their lives so they could continue to reap the benefits of being in a highly-paid job without having to put in all the hours. They constructed elaborate lies about what they were doing.
Not quite sleeper-agent-for-the-Russians or second-family-stashed-in-the-next-town level of lies, but still, they had to spend plenty of energy constructing and maintaining these public personas.
Now, this isn’t what I find depressing; the fact that women tend not to do it is sad, but personally I think we all engage in self-fashioning (of the Erving Goffman, if not the Stephen Greenblatt, variety) all the time. As my dissertation advisor memorably put it, when you’re interviewing for a job, be yourself, only more so.
The two things I did find really depressing, though, were the company’s attitudes, and their response to the study. The first is nicely captured by the story of one employee who said
his daughter was born he had been harassed for taking two weeks of paternity leave, despite spending some of that leave working. But when, later that year, he and his family took a three-week vacation to an exotic locale, the vacation was permitted, and his team encouraged him to “unplug” and take a real vacation.
Why the difference? It’s not that you’re less “away” under the one condition than the other: if you’re watching the baby or kite-boarding in Fiji, you’re equally unable to pick up the phone. But to the company the one was acceptable and the other not tbecause
taking on mundane responsibilities in one’s family life can threaten one’s devotion to work, while affording an expensive vacation may be instead contingent upon devotion to and success at work.
The vacation is okay because if you want to afford another one, you’re going to fly to Dusseldorf to meet with the clients the next time someone asks.
The response on the part of the partners was perfect. Actually, as Reid explains, it was
two responses: (1) a response that “these men”—those who revealed their lack of desire to be always available for and primarily committed to their work—were not the sort of men they really wanted anyway; and (2) a request to figure out how they might teach women to pass. The broader implication—that the organization itself might alter its expectations—was lost.
I hope one day to write an article titled something like “Admit It: You Want To Kill Your Employees,” which argues to leaders that the evidence on overwork, stress, and burnout is now so clear and so unambiguous that if you insist on demanding long hours and personal sacrifice from your employees, you should just admit that you’re trying to kill them.
There’s no dishonor in being honest and upfront about it. Just don’t hide behind “the client requires it,” or “tradition demands it,” or “because globalization.” If you can sell billion-dollar projects, shape the future of technology, make decisions that affect millions of people, or decide what a hundred million people will eat/watch/wear/desire next season, you can certainly control 24 little hours. Maintaining a culture that rewards overwork and sets people up to burn out is a choice.