Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Work Hours and Quality of Life

I read an article today scolding CEOs who work 100 hour weeks for years and thus neglect their families, in particular their children. The article also notes the double standard of berating poor fathers who don't spend time with their kids while giving CEOs who don't spend time with their kids cover stories in Fortune magazine.

I have to say, I agree with the sentiment. Probably the reason the CEOs get a pass is that they DO provide for their kids in the monetary sense, and further, many probably have stay-at-home parents, because CEOs can usually afford to live on a single income. And even those that don't can afford to hire nannies and such, so it isn't like the children of CEOs are abandoned or starving naked in the street. Which is, in some sense, what poor parents, particularly poor dads, are derided for more than not being there - not being financially supportive. Some mothers, in fact, want ONLY a check from the father of their children, and nothing else.

But, again, I still think children should get real quality time with parents. Why bother having kids if you will not spend time with them? No matter how rich or famous or powerful you are, all a tiny little toddler knows is he or she misses his or her mommy and daddy when they are away. It is heartbreaking for me every time I leave my daughter at day care or at home with a sitter when she plainly doesn't want me to go (and requires a crowbar to get her arms, legs, and tiny little fingers to let go of me). Fortunately, as she has gotten older, she isn't always like that, but it still happens often enough to give me pause every time I'm about to drop her off.

What inspired me to write wasn't just the article, but an article it linked to. An article about how a partner in a law firm deliberately works less hours so he can spend time with his ten year old daughter. The link between the articles was a notion that is quite often true - that what happens at the top trickles down, so if the CEO puts in 100 hour weeks, you end up having everyone else in the company putting in 100 hour weeks, so as not to be seen leaving before the "boss." Thus, where the boss works less hours and spends quality time with family, you'll see everyone else in the organization feel license to do the same.

One of the things I love about my current job is the fact that I don't have to work a lot of hours, giving me plenty of time to spend with my family. I pick up my daughter from day care every day relatively early. I sometimes drop her off as well. I watch her almost every weekday evening by myself (sometimes I get a sitter if I need or want to do something). In part, this works (and is necessary) because my wife often works much longer hours and also sometimes has long commute times (though that varies) so at least one of us needs to be there for the baby, and it can't be her a lot of the time. So I'm really limited in what sort of job I could take. I could not take a job that had long hours or even a commute because I need to get my daughter from daycare. And even if I did not have that restriction, I would not want to work long hours.

Jobs I had before I did law included some very very long hours. I also was paid very well, better than I am now as a lawyer, in fact. But I did not enjoy what I was doing very much. The long hours just made it that much worse. Fortunately, I had no child at that point - but then, it wasn't exactly an accident that we waited to have a child until after I stopped having long hours and after I graduated from law school. In short, in balancing work and life, I'd rather work shorter hours for less money than work long hours and be rich, but never see my family and miss seeing my daughter grow up.

Picking my daughter up from daycare is always the highlight of my day. Just thinking of seeing my daughter's smiling face or getting a hug from her as she chatters away is enough to bring a smile to my face, and I think of her often during the day.

Beyond the quality of life (and probable health) aspects, though, there are also very good reasons not to work very long hours. Quality goes down as fatigue sets in, particularly in any endeavor that requires a great deal of thought. Truly, you aren't going to get 10 quality "thinking" hours in a day, on a regular basis. You'll be lucky to get 5 or 6. The longer you work, the more the quality goes down. A client (in any business) has got to wonder if it is really worth paying for work that is so reduced in quality because of fatigue and burnout.

In the software industry, this is endemic. Working long hours on a late project making it later. It gets even worse when the results are magnified - a small error early on in the requirements stage can require literally thousands or tens of thousands of hours to find and correct when you are in the code implementation and debugging phase. Sensible, smart IT managers send their people home at 5 o'clock every day, keeping them fresh and much less likely to make costly mistakes. The same should be true of all knowledge workers. I'm sure it helps with other workers as well, though repetitive tasks that can be done without thinking are probably much less prone to this because of natural reflex memory (and because errors in such processes are easier to spot).

So the paradox is that you can get much more work done in a 40 hour week than in an 80 hour week. (I could go on and on with this, and maybe will at some point, but I will point out some great books on the subject: The Mythical Man-Month being the original work on this, along with Peopleware, and Rapid Development. I realize these are all about IT work, but much of what is in there really applies to any sort of thinking work).

I'll finish this with another half-thought - it makes good economic sense to work less hours (and have an organization that does so for everyone) because that will attract alot of really good workers. I know it would attract me. That is the sort of job I will be looking for as my next job when I leave my current job. It is interesting that I've read that alot of people of my generation are eschewing the big paychecks and are looking for quality of life in jobs, including shorter weeks. Hopefully this is a trend that will continue.

One last thing: At my high school graduation, like many graduations, there were a lot of silly platitudes in the speech given by the guest speaker, but there was one thing that has always stuck with me. She said that one thing you never hear people say on their deathbed is: "I wish I would have spent more time at work."

7 comments:

nicole said...

That last sentence - "No one says they wish they worked more when they're on their deathbed" pretty much sums up my entire view of how I want to integrate work into our lives. My husband works for a company where there is a lot of pressure to travel. He's an accountant (it's not a public accounting firm) so there's really not much that he couldn't just do over the phone. The company has salespeople and numerous vice presidents who can go into the world and be the "faces" of the company. So he feels ok about turning down "opportunities" to travel. His boss and the president of the company have said, in unguarded moments, that he just needs to "get out there and sacrifice" and that he won't advance his career unless he's willing to travel. But he keeps choosing to be home consistently for our two young children and for me, because he is childcare two nights a week when I'm working.

I used to teach music at a public school, but we made the choice that I would stay home once we had kids. I love what I do and have managed to continue my career as a private teacher, but I limit my schedule to two evenings a week because any more than that would start to be an intrusion on our family life.

At the same time, I realize how lucky we are to be able to make this choice. There are so many factors that make economic viability a problem for a lot of middle-class families, and I know we are fortunate to have found two jobs that support us well and that work into the bigger picture of our lives so well. Of course, the private teacher thing was in the back of my mind when I was a 17-year-old, choosing my career path. I knew I might want to stay home with children at some point in my life, and I wanted to have a plan to make that possible.

Like you said, I wish more bosses would get a life so their employees would feel free to have one as well. I know the business community is highly competitive, but part of having the best team to keep you ahead of your competition is being a great employer. And extra-long work weeks is just not a tempting part of the package. I wish more business leaders understood that their job is what they do to support their life. But it shouldn't BE their life.

Maya's Granny said...

I used to work in an office where the professionals were expected to put in 80 hour weeks at a minimum. One of our best workers quit and opened his own business where he could control the number of hours he worked, because he said, "I work to live. I don't live to work."

DBB said...

Maya's granny - did those professionals get paid overtime for 80 hours? I think one of the most exploitive things in the work world is the concept of 'salaried' being used to force people to work lots of unpaid overtime. It is espcially heinous when the companies that don't pay overtime are charging (and making money off of) every single one of those extra hours.

Sommar said...

Was it difficult for you to find employment that allowed your schedule? Not trying to pry just curious about folks that are able to find this balance.

DBB said...

It was not too hard with my current job, but that is the nature of the job. The drawback is that it is also by design only temporary, a few years, and then I'll have to find another. I guess then I'll find out how hard it is to find another job with similar flexibility.

But I figure, as with all things, schedule is negotiable. I will negotiate a non-OT schedule for less pay, if necessary. Though as I stated above, I think working longer hours sometimes just lowers quality and gets less done. Ideally I'd hang a shingle, but I would want to work for a few more years first before doing that.

hedera said...

After my divorce, years ago, I got a job as the regional office librarian for one of then (then) Big 8 accounting firms, my first experience with the "salaried" 80 hour week. (Lawyers, accountants, they're all alike.) People bragged about the overtime they worked. I ignored this until they made me a line manager, which put me on the "salaried" list. I found I was expected to work the hours too, even though I was administrative support and only marginally billable; just "peer pressure".

I had real trouble with this, for the odd reason that my father was a blue collar worker who came home at 5 PM every day when his shift was over; he worked a solid 40 hours and then he stopped. I remember arguing with myself about "acting professional", on the one side, and resenting being expected to work more than 40 hours for "a week's pay".

Eventually I burned out and left the firm, and became a computer programmer. However, I'm the odd subspecies called the "systems programmer" - we didn't work on big programming projects, we just kept the big systems running, keeping the operating system current and patched. We didn't get overtime (this was before the law changed), but if we worked a night or a weekend we could get comp time (if the boss was reasonable).

Actually, now I'm an "architect" which means I design stuff but don't build it - one of the reasons I'm retiring, I want to build stuff again. At my rank I'm salaried, and you know, I don't usually work more than about 41 or 42 hours. DBB is right that 8 hours is the max. In fact, if you work straight through lunch (as I often do, due to noon meetings with the East coast), the max is about 6 hours, then I have to find something mindless to do to fill up the day.

I've also been tired for nearly a year. I'm trying to convince myself it isn't because I'm getting older :P I've always needed 8 hours of sleep or more, and with all the early meetings I just don't get it. I had to start riding public transit (fortunately it goes to my stop) because I was falling asleep at the wheel commuting. They say it's sleep apnea but I still half believe it's just lack of sleep. Americans work RIDICULOUS hours, we kill ourselves.

And I don't even have kids.

Anonymous said...

Mass market software is a weird business. Network effects matter (you're better off if other people use the same software you do rather than something incompatible) but quality doesn't (you may grumble but you pay anyway) so being first to market even with a terrible product is a good way to win. This, of course, is a recipe for long hours, young employees, and skimping on both design and testing. I may go do embedded work instead--there are real consequences if your toaster or elevator doesn't work.