Sacrifice culture is deadly and it’s time to change
Sacrifice culture common in male-coded organisations is not just unhealthy…. it’s killing people.
Sacrifice culture is one I define as a workplace where employees are encouraged to make personal sacrifices for the sake of long term gain. These sacrifices are largely measured by time on the job or a presence culture. Long hours are demanded, encouraged and rewarded. It is commonly a feature of male coded and dominated organisations and the way in which they measure and reward success. Sacrifice culture comes at the expense of pursuing relationships and frequently involves spending away from home and with family. It stops people taking up hobbies, vacations or even weekends off. It interferes with staying healthy by eating and exercising correctly. It causes mental and physical health issues. Now we know it causes death.
As I have written before we are at a pandemic crossroads. The number of vaccinated people is increasing, and organisations are coming up with more concrete plans for their business and employees alike. The main question is what will that work model look like (and please I beg you, not another LinkedIn poll on this topic) but the answers are riddled with conflict and contradictions. The role of the sacrifice culture I anticipate is going to be part of the debate.
Sacrifice culture kills
BBC News reported from World Health Organization (WHO), long working hours are killing hundreds of thousands of people a year. The first global study showed 745,000 people died in 2016 from stroke and heart disease due to long hours. “The research found that working 55 hours or more a week was associated with a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease, compared with a working week of 35 to 40 hours.”
Of that number 25% were women and 75% were men. “While the study did not cover the period of the pandemic, WHO officials said the recent jump in remote working and the economic slowdown may have increased the risks associated with long working hours.
WHO technical officer Frank Pega said. “We have some evidence that shows that when countries go into national lockdown, the number of hours worked increase by about 10%,” The WHO also suggests that it’s important to cap hours. The sacrifice culture in male coded organisations is not just unhealthy. It’s deadly and it’s time to change.
As the pandemic deepened we started to see many employees reporting high levels of stress and even burnout, resulting in reduced engagement. Research from Randstad revealed that the gains in productivity seen at the beginning of the pandemic started to decrease towards the end of 2020, with a spike in work-from-home fatigue, anxiety and a lack of focus.
Post-pandemic research suggests that many would prefer the hybrid model where they spend two-three days working from home. Those companies such as Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook and Square which successfully embraced the remote model are extending it until 2022 or even beyond. The benefits are notable: reduced expensive and time consuming commutes, the reduction of negative impact on the environment as well as the opportunity to spend time with family to achieve better balance.
#WFO better for culture
And yet there is still a push for the old days, good or otherwise. Goldman Sachs has been one of the first organisations to say they want all employees back in the office by July, where it is safe to do so. CEO David Solomon suggested that remote work would not be their new normal. Earlier attempts had been met with resistance, when a group of analysts complained about their 100 hour weeks. A survey carried out by the bank in February showed that 13 respondents registered dissatisfaction claiming their working hours had “negatively impacted their relationships with friends and family.”
The solution? To make the lives of their analysts marginally less miserable by strengthening “the enforcement of the Saturday rule,” a concept that suggests that time off on a Saturday is a privilege not a right. Underpinning this notion is the lure of a future six-figure salary combined with the prospect of 5 whole hours’ sleep a night, plus an entire week off a year to encourage “work-life balance” will be persuasive. Now the U.S. is the no vacation nation, but will that do it?
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Another element around overcoming the personal sacrifice culture is that if businesses pursue a hybrid model they are still left with chunks of real estate on their hands with only a fraction of their employees in the office at any one time. Some companies are now offering employee incentives to attract their people back to a physical workplace. This includes free meals, job sharing, and flexible working.
Employee engagement was at an all-time high in July 2020, but is now returning to pre-pandemic levels. Initially, the engagement boost was associated with relief around having a job and good health and people felt safe. 15 months later that has worn off as employees handle home schooling and the feeling that we are living at work rather than working from home.
Women in particular have been badly hit. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 2.4 million women have exited the workforce during the pandemic. In the EU we saw a 6.9% decline in wages as a result of working fewer hours, compared with a 4.7% decline in men’s wages between the first and second quarters. On top of this, lockdowns have had a significant impact on unpaid care and work-life balance. Once again in the EU women spent, on average, 62 hours per week caring for children (compared to 36 hours for men) and 23 hours per week doing housework (15 hours for men).
We have to reframe this information and stop using passive language. This is because men are not sharing the parenting load. In some cases it is directly related to the exaggerated expectations of their organisations.
Taking concrete steps, we need a shift from a presence-based, sacrifice culture, to one which is flexible, based on results. Those who want better balance in their lives will not be excluded from jobs or promotions because they don’t show the necessary “commitment”, make enough “effort” or lack “energy.” Especially women. This will be better for employee well being and business productivity. But it will also save lives.
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