The normalization of deviance – the culture of overwork

by | Apr 9, 2019

The Culture of Overwork


Do you have a new culture of overwork? Many organisations view a 40 hour week as a minimum and working long hours is the new norm.


Historically employment protection laws evolved in developed economies to safeguard the interests of the working population against harsh conditions and long hours. In the 1890's in the US the first exercise tracking hours worked showed that the average working week was 100 hours. Gradually the campaign for a standard Monday to Friday 40 hour week was successful. But is history turning a full circle?

Workplace structure

In today's knowledge economy, far removed from a factory culture, this workplace structure is under scrutiny to meet 21st century business imperatives.  Organizations seek to:

  • Increase flexibility: to meet individual natural optimum work rhythms, thus increasing their personal efficiency, but also to meet the needs of the end users or market. As businesses go global then this is an important requirement.
  • Improve natural response time: For most businesses, work ebbs and flows with peaks and troughs.  A 40-hour weekly structure year-round, means employees have periods of under-utilization and excessive hours during peaks.
  • Manage payroll costs: Moving away from the 40 hour week allows organisations to optimize their payroll costs and pay employees for time worked or results delivered. This is why we are seeing the rise of the freelance economy.
  • Increase creativity: a static environment impacts creativity reduced by the boredom of the daily grind.
  • Improve work/life balance: this is the  modern-day catch-all mantra about finding the balance between the amount of time spent at work and in your life overall. It is further compounded for employees with children, as school hours bear little or no relationship to business hours.

One major downside

Many organisations view that 40 hour cut off as a minimum. Overwork is now the new norm. We are seeing the emergence of a culture of overwork, where long hours are expected and also viewed as a benchmark of success. This is despite the fact that work-related stress and burnout, are high cost modern-day maladies, associated with lost work days and  a huge economic impact. The search for employee engagement solutions is the new holy grail .

Professor Diane Vaughan, professor at Columbia University Department of Sociology describes the normalization of deviance thus:

"Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behaviour that they don't consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for the elementary safety"


Culture of Overwork

Toxic culture

This can cover a range of toxic behaviours ranging from the mildly unacceptable to the outright illegal and exploitative. This includes the toleration of fiddling expenses, cheating at cricket, corner cutting in safety standards (VW emissions) unethical business practises (toxic sub-prime mortgages), sexual harassment (Harvey Weinstein et al) fraudulent accounting (FIFA scandal) and hours worked. Organisational regression, has resulted in some sectors gaining notoriety for boiler room pressure with cultures of overwork reminiscent of the 19th century. In October 2014 Goldman Sachs introduced the concept of “Protect Saturday” insisting that junior analysts take Saturdays off (except when they were working on live deals.)  This was considered on Wall Street as almost revolutionary, but seems Dickensian in its thinking. Sectors that function on, and reward, billable hours, operate the same culture of excessively long presence based hours. It is also common in certain areas of healthcare.

The 40 hour week is once again a radical idea in some areas.

Impact of Technology

The arrival of technology, particularly the smart phone, has produced what Josh Bersin of Deloitte calls the “overwhelmed employee.” Now we have an expectation of 24/7 connectivity, instant gratification and responsiveness as well as availability.

Although many countries report hours worked as being within the 40 hour week guideline, the reality is quite different. Any stats also measure time spent "in work" rather than time spent "working." Hours worked has become the new (male?) badge of resilience. They also serve as a deterrent to women, who still in many cases assume the role of C.D.O. (Chief Domestic Officer) in addition to their professional activities. They are the new barrier to entry and promotion to senior levels for women.

The blurring between personal and professional, as being in work and outside it, merge into an ill-defined continuum. At one time this was the exception. Now it is the new norm for increasing numbers.

Download the 3Plus Career Reflections Worksheets for guidelines

Highly educated

There has also been another shift. Three decades ago more highly qualified employees were less likely to work longer hours compared to lower paid and less qualified. A 2008 Harvard Business School survey of a thousand professionals found that 94% per cent worked 50 hours or more a week, and almost half worked in excess of 65 hours a week. Attributed to the Boomer work ethics characterizing workplace culture, with their work centric focus on hierarchy, power and prestige, successful people now work longer hours than ever. Although this doesn’t explain similar overwork cultures found in a more youthful Silicon Valley.

Will the right to disconnect become a much sought after corporate benefit or will we see a corporate exodus as individuals seek to protect their health and wellbeing? Ironically the 40 hour working week was instituted to protect lower paid and less qualified workers.

As we are seeing in some countries employees are now being protected against after hours intrusion and demands by employer. It is probably now needed for senior, highly educated ones as well.

Adapted from a post on LinkedIn Pulse 

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Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she joins the dots between organisations, individuals, opportunity and success.
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