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(Unsplash, 2019)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Sean Fleming, Senior Writer, Formative Content

Most people will have stayed late at work to finish urgent tasks or might even have pulled an all-nighter to hit a really tight deadline. When those occasions are the exception rather than the norm, there’s little lasting harm done by working extra, unpaid hours. But in some organizations, there is an expectation that everyone will work beyond their contracted hours as a matter of course.

This can lead to a culture where people who leave on time are regarded as disloyal or showing a lack of commitment. Even if this attitude doesn’t exist among senior managers, there may be one or two individuals who make a point of staying later than everyone else in a public display of dedication. But presenteeism, as it is sometimes called, can be damaging to people’s health, productivity and wellbeing.

A global research project undertaken by the insurance services group, Maxis GBN, found that workers in the UAE spend more time at work beyond their contracted hours than anywhere else in the world.

Each month, a typical worker in the UAE is likely to clock up an extra 24 hours at work and 71% of them feel their workplace suffers from presenteeism. The United States and Hong Kong come second, with 23.2 additional hours worked per month. French workers, despite their famous workplace protections and employee rights, aren’t far behind with 22.4 extra hours per month.

Regardless of which country they were in, respondents to the survey said culture was important when considering a new job – 82% said they consider it important and 58% rate culture as very important.

Last year, research from the UK’s Chartered Institute of Personnel Management found that 86% of UK workers had observed presenteeism in their organization over the preceding 12 months, up from 72% in 2016. In 2010 that figure had been just 26%. The same research found 55% of respondents had reported an increase in anxiety, depression and other common mental health conditions, up from 41% in 2016. As well as blighting lives, depression and anxiety combined cost the global economy $1 trillion every year in lost productivity.

Image: Maxis GBN/WHO

The challenge for organizations with a culture of presenteeism is the impact it can have on employee welfare. As has been widely reported, Japan’s problem with long working hours has led to an epidemic of sleep deprivation leading, in the most extreme cases, to death.

While working an hour or so extra every day isn’t likely to bring on karoshi (death from lack of sleep), the cumulative effects can still be extremely harmful. From denying people opportunities for a healthy work/life balance and fostering a culture of only the strong survive, the net effect can be to trigger a range of stress-related problems. Those, in turn, can soon metastasize into more serious mental health problems such as depression or anxiety.

Productivity also suffers from such workplace cultures. For although there are obvious gains when people stay long enough to finish their tasks, over time, tired and disaffected staff start to under-perform. Those who suffer longer-term depression-related illnesses are likely to need time off work, too. Ultimately people will be more inclined to leave if they feel things are unlikely to improve, triggering the cost of hiring and training new staff.

Interestingly, countries with shorter working hours often register higher productivity. At the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos, organizational psychologist and Wharton professor Adam Grant and economist and historian Rutger Bregman argued that reducing working hours could have a range of benefits for workers and employers.

Creating workplaces that support wellbeing could call for significant changes to some organizational cultures.

Last year, LinkedIn surveyed 5,000 hiring professionals and found one of the major trends in recruiting strategies is offering flexible working arrangements. Since 2016, LinkedIn has seen a 78% increase in job ads that offer flexible working.