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The work hour puzzle: How much is too much?

Narayana Murthy, Founder of Infosys, in a podcast interview by Mohandas Pai, evoked a cascade of opinions and reactions when he recently suggested that ‘youngsters’ need to work 70-hour weeks in the interests of nation-building.
Last Updated : 31 October 2023, 04:00 IST
Last Updated : 31 October 2023, 04:00 IST

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Narayana Murthy, Founder of Infosys, in a podcast interview by Mohandas Pai, evoked a cascade of opinions and reactions when he recently suggested that ‘youngsters’ need to work 70-hour weeks in the interests of nation-building.

Many industry stalwarts, including Bhavish Aggarwal, CEO of Ola and Sajjan Jindal, Chairman of JSW Group, have endorsed Murthy’s views, whereas others offer a different perspective. Ronnie Screwvala, chairman of upGrad, an ed-tech platform, feels that productivity cannot be reduced to the number of hours worked without quality being factored in. Sukbhir Singh Bhatia, CEO of Hi-Com Network, opines that a well-rested workforce is more innovative and creative.

When you examine the research on productivity, studies pinpoint various factors. In an article in Forbes, Roei Friedberg identified lighting, air quality, opportunities for movement and personal time off as relevant factors. A blog post on Datalligence AI examines the top ten factors contributing to employee productivity in modern workplaces. These include work-life balance and the health and well-being of employees. 70-hour work weeks as a norm are incompatible with the long-term physical and psychological health of employees.

Though 70-hour work weeks may boost productivity in the short term, over time, this is likely to lead to burnout or a state of profound exhaustion, either physical or emotional, accompanied by a diminished sense of efficacy. According to Mayo Clinic, an intense workload, long working hours and a lack of work-life balance are risk factors that lead to job burnout. A 70-hour work week as a normative practice checks off all those boxes.

While I’m not suggesting youngsters shouldn’t work hard or challenge themselves, there is a difference between giving your best and stretching the envelope so thin that you jeopardise your physical and mental health.

Murthy had suggested that employees should work 60-hour weeks in 2020 to spur India’s economy. Now, that figure has ballooned to 70 hours per week. So, what is the ideal number of hours needed to optimise productivity and attend to your other needs? Can we even put our fingers on a number to achieve work-life balance?

Deciding hours of work

Hours of Work (Commerce and Offices) Convention, 1930, states that work hours cannot exceed forty-eight hours in a week and eight hours in the day. The maximum weekly work hours can be arranged to ensure they do not exceed ten hours daily.

In an article in the online magazine Psyche, organisational psychologists Jessica de Bloom and Merly Kosenkranius urge us to examine whether our lives meet all our basic psychological needs rather than thinking about work-life balance. They suggest we use the DRAMMA model (an acronym for detachment, relaxation, autonomy, mastery, meaning, and affiliation), first proposed by psychologist Ed Diener, to analyse whether we live rounded lives. 

The first, detachment, entails being able to disengage from taxing work, either in the professional or personal domain. This involves a period when you do not have to think or worry about professional duties. A 70-hour week makes detaching from work harder, especially if your work shadows you home with phone calls and emails that demand to be answered immediately. To replenish your “psychobiological resources”, you need to be able to switch off from work regularly.

Only if you detach can you relax both body and mind. You need time to wind down, engage in a soothing activity or a hobby, or connect with family and friends.

Next, you need to examine whether you have sufficient autonomy in your life, where you are in complete charge of your decisions. It’s great to have some degree of autonomy at work, where a boss does not micromanage you. However, in some jobs, you may not have sufficient autonomy. You need to ensure that you have some time every day and decide how to spend it.

Does your job tap your talents and strengths? Do you feel your skills are being optimised at work? If yes, your need for mastery is being met by your job. Do you find meaning in your career? Every aspect of your job does not have to have a higher purpose.

But de Bloom and Kosenkranius cite a study conducted by the Mayo Clinic. It says that physicians who spent at least 20% of their time at work who found it personally fulfilling, like carving out time to discuss a diagnosis or a prognosis with a patient, were less likely to succumb to burnout. So, whether engaging with clients or mentoring younger colleagues, try to inject meaning into your work.

The last need is affiliation, which refers to a sense of belonging and caring. Do you have family, friends and colleagues you care for and vice versa? Does your career permit you to spend sufficient time with people outside of work?

So, using the DRAMMA model, you may decide whether a 70-hour week allows you to fulfil your basic psychological needs. 

(The author is a psychologist)

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Published 31 October 2023, 04:00 IST

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