The trouble with the 40-hour week

Posted 1/7/2019 by Georgina Deas

This week, our blog comes from Tom Gold, a professional Life Coach who works with founders, CEO’s and entrepreneurs.

In the past, Tom’s worked with incarcerated offenders, forensic psychiatric clients, combat veterans, disengaged youth and a whole lot of people who didn't believe that this is as good as life gets.

Today, he’s looking at the trouble with working the 40-hour week, mental health and burnout in the technology industry.


“Nobody changed the world working 40-hours a week.”

- Elon Musk, 2018


When Elon Musk tweeted this last year, it prompted a deluge of criticism. Some pointed out that people had died fighting for a 40-hour week and others shared that being home in time to have dinner with their family is changing the world. Meanwhile, people reminded us that industrialists, like Musk, have built their fortunes on the backs of people who worked themselves to death.


Musk is no stranger to controversy but it’s quite likely, reading the tweets that preceded this one, that he was talking specifically about the technology sector. It’s a tough working environment, highly competitive, operates across multiple time zones and innovation is a constant, rather than a periodic occurrence.


For the people who work in this sector, the technological revolution has, in the space of a couple of decades at most, brought them to the stage where they’re never truly disconnected from it.


I can remember the advertisements for the first WAP (Wireless Access Protocol) phones. They ran the strapline: ‘start work before you even reach the office.’ Today, you don’t need to stop at all, if you don’t want to, and this phenomenon is certainly not confined to the C-suite and harassed start-up founders.


For many in the front line of the technology sector, the pressure to stay on top of emails outside working hours is enormous. Even without this, Slack, workplace Facebook and WhatsApp groups are serving to further blur the line between working and non-working lives.


There's no point congratulating yourself for getting home early on Friday afternoon if you then spend Friday evening surreptitiously checking your phone under the dinner table, worrying about what you might have missed. Similarly, taking an early night that then involves scrolling messages and industry news until 2330 isn't really an early night; neither is going to the gym if you break off to check your phone every time it buzzes.


Earlier this year the British Interactive Media Association (BIMA) surveyed more than 3,000 members of the UK technology community and found that 66% of respondents were stressed by their work. 52% have suffered from anxiety or depression at some point. Tech people are five times more depressed than the UK general population.


On the flip side, just like the original ‘49ers’, who headed west for the Sierra Nevada in search of gold, the latest generation of coders and tech entrepreneurs are chasing rewards that are measured in millions, if not billions.


It’s nothing new, even the technology industry; from the early days of Silicon Valley ‘burnout-shops’, there has been an understanding that the effect of the long hours, the pressure of difficult decisions and minimal social life are worth it, and that, for some, the rewards will always justify the means.


Closer to home, Scotland’s tech industry is having its day in the sun. With investment from all over the world and businesses and founders alike keen to take advantage of Scotland’s wealth of talent, compact infrastructure and easy communication, the future looks bright.


Skyscanner, famously sold in 2016 for 1.4 billion with the three original founders receiving dividends in the hundreds of millions. It might have been the country’s first Unicorn, and it won’t be the last, but Scotland’s next billion-dollar start-up founder is going to need to log some serious hours each week to get the job done. If not managed correctly, those hours will come with some significant health risks; depression, anxiety and burnout, as well as a host of other health problems associated with lack of sleep, poor diet and lack of exercise.


But if it really isn’t possible to win big on forty hours a week, is there a correct number?


Vodafone CEO, Vittorio Colao, is up at 6 a.m., exercises for 40 minutes, and then works nearly continuously until 10:45 p.m., pausing for family dinner.


Alibaba founder, Jack Ma, keeps a 996 schedule like thousands of other tech workers in China. 996 translates to 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., 6 days a week.


Mark Zuckerberg says he only does around 50 to 60 hours a week at the office, but freely admits he spends a huge additional amount of time thinking about work.


Jeff Bezos works a very modest 7 hours, in marked contrast to many of his own people.


Perhaps the question is not how many hours we should work or even what we do with them, it's about how we make sure they don’t end up damaging our mental and physical health.


Much of the advice you’ll read will focus on the importance of getting eight hours sleep a night, eating a well-balanced diet, and taking regular exercise. You’ll also read plenty about not exceeding a 40-hour week and you don’t need me to tell you that it’s sound advice.


That said, a lot of advice is written by people who don’t have a team of staff to manage or who aren’t wondering about how Brexit will alter the landscape, or whether they’ll land that next big contract.


Let’s be clear on one thing: working 12 hour days, 70 hour weeks or 996 is going to catch up with you eventually and with poor self-care routines it will be sooner rather than later; ask me how I know this.


If you start to notice that you are losing your temper more often, becoming withdrawn, indecisive and irritable and if you’re having trouble sleeping then you may be becoming stressed and you might want to think about talking to your GP.


Taking care of your mental health does not have to mean taking your eye off the ball, it means staying in the game for longer. So if you do have to pull some serious hours, you might want to start thinking about how you use the time you’re not working.


Digital Discipline

If you’re not going to be sleeping for eight hours, shutting down all your devices and screens an hour and a half before you do go to bed will help you sleep better. If you can’t do that, then declare your bedroom a Wi-Fi free zone. This will help ring-fence the time you sleep.


Productive vs. Unproductive Energy

Our innate ‘fight or flight’ responses continue to function even when we’re exhausted. This can give the false impression that we are ‘running on adrenaline’ but beyond 50 hours a week, our capacity for critical thinking and decision-making is depleted. After the 60-hour marker, it’s quite likely we’re going to make some mistakes. If it’s possible to schedule the really critical stuff at the start of the week, you’ll be in better shape to deal with it.


Mental Reset

Try to think of breaks as a vital pit stop, rather than time deleted from your workday. Do you have time for a ten-minute walk around the block? Can you leave your phone behind for that long too? Can you go up to the roof and suck in some air? My quick mental reset involves cranking out some pushups and watching a favourite Youtube clip.


Give Yourself Fewer Unimportant Choices

Why does Zuckerberg always wear a grey t-shirt, jeans and trainers? So he doesn’t waste time in the mornings worrying about what to wear. The fewer ‘tier three’ choices you need to make each day will free up capacity for the ones that really count.


Get Brutal

When you are at the top of your game, take time to identify everything in last month’s diary or yesterday’s ‘to-do’ list that made the least contribution to your overall objective and then decide if it still needs to happen.


Eating Well

Professional endurance athletes wouldn’t run a marathon on Red Bull, Pringles and Coronation Chicken sandwiches, so if you’re going to be doing 50-hours plus, it’s essential to eat well. Try stashing healthy snacks in the top draw of your desk and regular hydration with water or fruit juice. Preparing healthy meals in advance can seem like a chore in your precious down time but if you do all your own cooking, this will pay huge dividends the next time you get home at 9.00 p.m.


Talk To Someone

A coach can keep you accountable on the changes you need to make to your routine. You can also have the sort of conversation with a coach that you might not be able to have with friends, loved ones and colleagues. If they know their business, they can help you to honestly and objectively reflect on your psychological trajectory and decision-making paradigms, especially during critical times.


Tom Gold is a professional Life Coach who works with founders, CEO’s and entrepreneurs. In the past, he’s worked with incarcerated offenders, forensic psychiatric clients, combat veterans, disengaged youth and a whole lot of people who didn't believe that this is as good as life gets. You can read more about him here


Enigma People Solutions is an award-winning technology recruitment consultancy. We find technical leaders for the emerging and enabling technology industries. Visit our job search page for the latest vacancies in photonics, electronics, semiconductor, software and IoT in Scotland. Check out our blog for the latest in the technology industry. You can get in touch with us or call us on + 44 131 510 8150


To the admin, Thanks for the well-organized and comprehensive post!
Posted on February 19, 2023 by Luis Lillico
Good article. It teased out the key battle going on here "tomorrows unicorn reward v today's burnout sacrifice"...From personal experience having sold my business to a US major (founder referenced in this article) in 2016 after years of sleep deprivation, unbelievable levels of stress and conversion to digital junkie, I have huge problems sleeping now. Was it worth it though? On balance, just about YES but articles like this are good as they highlight the downside which is good as we all have a tendency to wear the rose tinted unicorn glasses.
Posted on July 12, 2019 by Seonaidh MacDonald
super article, I think we can all see certain characteristics of ourselves in the above. In saying that, the three significant shareholders of SkyScanner may argue that they would never have achieved what they did with sticking to 40hours a week, solid sleep and regular breaks :-)
Posted on July 03, 2019 by Neill Cooper

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