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Midnight oil: why long hours don’t necessarily lead to success

UK workers now spend even more time in the office than they did a decade ago.

And yet, all the research suggests that productivity does not increase in line with hours worked. So how do you ensure that you keep working hours reasonable – and what are the risks to productivity and mental health from not doing so?

Managing staff expectations

“Companies are really starting to rethink the expectations of their employees and how many hours they expect them to work, for multiple reasons,” says Natasha Wallace, Founder and Chief Coach at Conscious Works, a wellbeing and leadership development company.

“We have the lowest productivity in the G7, and yet we work such long hours; one in three suffer mental health issues in the workplace and burnout levels are increasing year-on-year.”

Wallace thinks the problem has now become urgent – “organisations are trying, sensibly, to get better performance from their people, and that doesn’t mean working them harder. We’ve learned that squeezing longer and longer hours isn’t sustainable – and with today’s technology, there’s little need to.”

Finding better ways of using work hours

In practice, Wallace recommends “recognising our own boundaries and the point at which we feel we are not being effective. Identify when you’re on autopilot and at this point, move into a different gear – find ways of spending the time better instead of continuing to do the same thing but not getting the results you’re used to.”

From an organisational point of view, Wallace says, “be very clear about what you’re trying to achieve and have really clear objectives for people to work towards. It’s not about telling people what to do at a granular level. Organise your efforts so people are concentrated on what matters.”

Blue sky mining – learning to be flexible

Flexible working in every sense is key here.

As well as avoiding the precise rigours of 9-5, 5 days a week, 47 weeks a year where possible, “align towards goals, not tasks. When you work towards something greater than yourself, it tends to motivate you – in equal and opposite balance to being stressed about things that matter less.”

People also need to recognise the fact that they’re working too hard.

“This is really important. A lot of observers assume that employees are only working too hard because leaders tell them to. But that’s not true. They want to bring value so they opt to work long hours to deliver it.”

To address this, organisations need “an environment of trust. Only where people can say that they’re feeling overloaded without fear of consequences, do you get a free flow of communication between people and leaders.”

Creating a positive culture

This takes practice, but creating a culture of “psychological safety” in this way is vital if our culture of overworking is to change.

“If you want to create an environment which is high-performance on the one hand but with good mental health on the other, you need to enable people to speak up.” However, “just telling people this does not create psychological safety. It has to come from micro-changes, and it has to be consistent and long term.” 

Not only can overworking have seriously detrimental effects on your health, it can also damage the work itself – and this is of particular importance for accountants.

“You’ll tend to gloss over stuff, you’ll skip over things, and your attention to detail isn’t as great,” says Mark Telford, Director at Telfords Chartered Accountants.

“Your standards might be lower – you find yourself accepting work that you would otherwise you would have checked again.” This, Telford says, “is one of the biggest mistakes you can make; to set high standards and then perform far below them is not something anyone wants to do.”

It’s here that the serious knock-on effects of overwork become apparent. “It can be critical to your business and your client. If you make a mistake in the work and it results in clients not submitting a tax return on time, they can get fined, something which damages both of you not only financially but also reputationally.”

On the flipside, Telford argues, “your client might be paying too much tax if you’ve overlooked tax savings opportunities, or haven’t had time to communicate with them properly because you’re so busy.” Clients will then start to question the quality of your work, “and think, why am I paying you when you’re making mistakes?”


Are there specific tips for accountants to handle the bottlenecks at particular times of year?

“Historically, December/January is always regarded as the busiest time,” Telford says. “But I’ve never really bought into this; I believe it’s self-perpetuating. Accountants continually accept, I will be busy. They never say, ‘what am I going to do about it.’ If you ask that crucial question of yourself, it is possible to change things.”

Every accountant gets to the end of January and says “never again!” Telford points out wryly – “and then exactly the same thing happens next year. My approach is, look at it on a total global level. How much work do we have to do on annual basis, and what can we do to spread that workload across the year?”

This should be regardless of an income tax return due in January or a corporate tax return and set of accounts in June, he says. “If you have a deadline you tend to work right up to it, rather than thinking, I’ll take the pressure off and do it right away. This is just human nature. Instead, think – how can I do this work so it fits in with everything else?”

A big part of achieving this is that your clients need to be on-side.

“You do have to educate your clients as to what you’re looking to do and when you want to do it. And that means having good communication lines open.” If it’s a piece of work you want to finish in June, Telford says, “tell the client at the start of May that you’d like them to get the information to you by the end of May. Factor things in – we know that for most business owners, their accounts are not a primary objective, because they want to be growing the business instead.”

Ultimately, Telford says, “we typically have nine months from the end of an accounting period to deliver the return. Why not do it in months three to six, rather than scrabbling around with it in months seven to nine?”

Best of both worlds

At an individual level, “people need to recognise their own patterns of behaviour,” Natasha Wallace says. “Often we are on a treadmill – we don’t question the way we work or consider how effective we are. Lots of people assume they are working to a high rate but actually it’s about working a lot, not working productively.”

Producing high quality outputs “is a difficult thing,” she says.

“But it’s vital to recognise your own needs – not just in terms of mental health, but in terms of what nourishes you and makes you feel good.” It’s fine to have short bursts of working hard, Wallace concludes. “But working long hours over long periods isn’t, because it’s not sustainable.

“Be aware of your own working patterns, identify when you’re at your most productive and do the most complex work then, and detect when negative emotions appear. If you can see the patterns, you can change the parts that need changing – otherwise, problems can become deeply engrained.”  

Mark Blayney Stuart is Business Journalist of the Year, Wales Media Awards 2017 and Former Head of Research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

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