24 Jan 2017

How to avoid Karoshi...

When I was in my twenties, I thought I was Superwoman.  Seriously.  I was a very young Client Services Director for a data driven marketing agency, I had a BMW, I lived in the city, I worked (really) hard and I played (quite) hard.  I took clients to the River Cafe for Dinner, I entertained other clients at various sporting events which we sponsored - in other words, I played the game.  And at the time, I think I enjoyed it. Most of the time.  BUT, I did not live a normal life.  I was regularly taking a cab to the office for 5am to start my working day. I'd finish work around 8pm and take work home with me.  I was travelling to London two or three days a week (in a chauffeured vehicle so that we could work on the journey) and when I wasn't working, I was doing post work compulsory socialising.  I lived that life for around 5 years - 90 hour weeks were not infrequent. And then I stopped and discovered that actually, not every business works like that, expects that or would even respect that kind of behaviour.  Since then, I have always worked for businesses who expect and appreciate that employees are entitled to a good work life balance and now that I am my own boss.....well, I work hard still but I choose when to work hard and that makes a big difference.

So why is this relevant?  Recently I've been writing my annual salary survey and when I do this, I also do a bit of a 'state of the nation' type of address and evaluate what employees are looking for, what the trends are and what employers can do to retain and keep their staff motivated and happy.  More and more candidates are citing the 'work life balance' as the most important criteria in searching for a new role and whilst they are happy to work hard during working hours, they want and need down time with their families and to spend time doing (the other) things that they love.   When I look at the cross section of advertising/digital/marketing agencies that I work with, I know which are the agencies which demand long hours and which do not.  I know which agencies will consider flexible hours and which won't bat an eyelid if you need time off for sports day. I know which agencies will suit the party animals and hedonists and which might prefer the geeks.  Horses for courses right?  And to some extent that is true. But I also think that as you go through life, you probably suit different environments and the agency life that you lived in your twenties shifts as you move into your thirties and forties.

It's made a bit more complex by the onset of Smartphones and being on-call all the time.  The French, who in my opinion have a pretty good attitude to work, have just passed a new law where French workers are given the right not to check work emails after 6pm.....(the caveat is that it applies to businesses with over 50 employees).  This is called the 'right to disconnect' and is set to put a stop to compulsive out of hours email checking.  It became legal on the 1st January and I'll be keen to see how it catches on and how they implement it. I know in many owner managed businesses in this country, it would be pretty difficult to refuse to 'keep an eye on email'.  The French do have around 35 days holiday a year plus 11 Bank Holidays and their 35 hour week is one of the best in Europe.  During August, the country shuts down, everyone uses their holiday allowance and I think more tellingly, the French ALWAYS stop for lunch.  And eat proper food, away from their desks.  I'd like to be French.

The Japanese have also been in the news a lot.  Their word is 'Karoshi' which is basically 'death by overwork' - sounds dramatic but they have hundreds of thousands of people a year who have Karoshi listed as a recognised cause of death - essentially anything over 60 hours a week can classify this.  The Japanese do have a gruelling work culture and they also, apparently have a higher than average fear of bad performance evaluation and a very small percentage take their annual holiday allowance (20 days).  The government has now passed legislation to reduce the number of employees working a 60 hour week but a big change in culture is required (and it's not just advertising agencies!).

So it has to be taken seriously.  Working long hours at the grindstone cannot be maintained for long periods of time without the wheels falling off.  Everything from relationship problems to sleeplessness and burnout are all attributed to working too long.  Try to find out about the working culture of a business when you are interviewing. Ask to speak to people in the team so you can get a clear idea of what the work life balance is all about.  Ask how much time will be required socialising with clients and if you'll receive any time off in lieu.  Ask if employees do use up their holiday allowances and if it's possible to buy extra days. If you get this information at the outset, you'll know what the expectations are and if you can live up to those expectations - if you want to...

I wasn't unhappy for those 5 years.  I lived that life thinking it was 'normal' but I had chronic eczema having never suffered previously and drank quite a bit too much wine. I lived on adrenaline and excessively exercised in the moments I wasn't sleeping or working.  Now, a few years on, I've got many other things in my life and I run my own business. I still work hard, I occasionally play hard, I train for triathlons, sing, play the piano,have an imaginary dog, spend time with family, travel, write chick lit and after 8 years of lessons, I'm nearly fluent in French.  Watch this space!