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The Long Work Hours Culture: an interview with Ronald Burke & Cary Cooper

Interview by: Alistair Craven

Options:     PDF Version - The Long Work Hours Culture: an interview with Ronald Burke & Cary Cooper Print view    |    PDF Version - The Long Work Hours Culture: an interview with Ronald Burke & Cary Cooper PDF version

Image: Ronald BurkeRonald J. Burke is Professor Emeritus of Organizational Behaviour / Industrial Relations at the Schulich School of Business, York University, Toronto.

His areas of expertise include work and family, work and health, career development, women in management, organizational development and change, executive leadership, and managing an increasingly diverse workforce. His current research projects include workaholism in organizations, work and health, work hours, and advancing women’s careers.

Image: Cary CooperProfessor Cary Cooper CBE is Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Lancaster University Management School.

Until October 2003 Cary held a chair at UMIST where he was formerly Deputy Vice Chancellor. He is Visiting Professor at Heriot-Watt University (Edinburgh), and the universities of Sheffield, Exeter and Liverpool, and holds honorary doctorates from Heriot-Watt, Wolverhampton, Aston and Middlesex universities. He is also currently Founding Editor of the international quarterly journal the Journal of Organizational Behavior, published by John Wiley and Sons and co-editor of the medical journal Stress & Health (John Wiley & Sons), and former co-editor of the management journal International Journal of Management Reviews.


AC: Can you tell us about the ideas behind the new book?

Cary Cooper:

The idea behind this book is that in the developed world people are working longer and longer hours and the evidence is mounting that this is damaging their health and family life.

Ronald Burke:

Cary and I have been actively involved in understanding the effects of work experiences on individual satisfaction and well-being for some time. We have used a stressor (or job demands) – strain (e.g., satisfaction, exhaustion, family balance) framework. Working hours, holding an intense job, and work addiction would be examples of both stressors or demands (the first two) and individual characteristics that exacerbate the stressor-strain relationship (e.g. work addiction).

AC: Chapter one states that people have expected an “association of long working hours and adverse well-being” for over 100 years, yet work hours has only become a “hot topic” within the past few years. Why is this so?

Cary Cooper:

Although during the industrial revolution people worked long hours, the number of hours has been declining since the 1970s and then in the 1980s and onwards it has been rising again. This is a consequence of globalization which has meant that companies and public sector bodies have been reducing their labour force to compete, put more work on fewer people but also overloaded them with electronic overload (e.g. e-mails). Also, in a downturn more people will be working longer to show commitment which will mean more presenteeism and more ill health as a consequence.

Ronald Burke:

More people want to work to live, not live to work today. In part the values of the younger generation of employees, in part the result of the carnage that long work hours have wrought and in part more attention to the research evidence pointing out the dangers of overwork.

Q: To quote from the book, “…the institutionalized nature of work and employment has tended to constrain work hours in established patterns.” Can you elucidate?

Cary Cooper:

This effectively means that in the old days, say 30 years ago, unions were strong, many people worked in the public sector but that was privatized and now work is more insecure, less union based and more short term contract.

Ronald Burke:

Organizations have sought to control hours worked (e.g. 9-5), and used their physical plant to maximum effectiveness (e.g. keeping it open from morning to night), working at nights and on weekends in shopping malls to provide a service to clients who cannot shop during the day because of their own jobs. To make a clear distinction between work and home/family, individuals leave their homes and go to another place to work and work during the daylight hours.

AC: The book presents evidence showing that over-working can be directly linked to ill health. From the examples you have worked with in compiling the book, would you say that it is predominantly the personal choice of an individual or the working environment/culture of a particular organization that leads to over-working?

Cary Cooper:

It might have been in the 80s, but now it is because there is a long hours culture in many organizations that now have fewer employees and more work to do. Also, job insecurity is leading people to arrive earlier and stay later to show commitment to protect their jobs.

Ronald Burke:

It is both a function of personal choices (for some) and organizational pressures (for others).

“More people want to work to live, not live to work today. In part the values of the younger generation of employees, in part the result of the carnage that long work hours have wrought.”

AC: If ill-health is a direct result of over working, why do you think individuals continue to work excessively?

Ronald Burke:

Many individuals aren't aware of this relationship, or think it won't happen to them, or they feel little choice.

AC: Do you think “workaholism” can ever be seen in a positive or beneficiary light?

Cary Cooper:

It may in the short term benefit the employer, but in the long term it will damage people’s health (clear from the evidence) but also the family and community.

Ronald Burke:

Yes. If people are passionate about their work instead of being addicted to it, and still allow time for recovery at nights and on weekends.

AC: Managers in the UK work the longest hours in Europe. What are the reasons for this?

Cary Cooper:

The Americanization of Britain more than any European country, that is, intrinsic job insecurity, long hours, more autocratic management style and so on.

Ronald Burke:

My friends in the UK have described it as the Americanization of UK organizations. And the values in the UK are closer to those in North America than they are in Italy and France, for example.

AC: The book discusses many strategies for tackling workaholism. Which strategy interests you the most, and why?

Cary Cooper:

More flexible working arrangements, a managerial style that is more praise and reward as opposed to a fault-finding management style…

Ronald Burke:

I have seen individual insights about their circumstances make a difference. Some individuals benefit from “therapeutic” interventions to keep mind, body, and family afloat.

AC: Generally speaking, do you think employers are doing enough to promote and support a healthy work-life balance?

Cary Cooper:

The better employers are trying to do something (e.g. AstraZeneca, Tesco, Nestlé) but many more are not!

AC: What impact do you think more flexible working practices, telecommuting and other such initiatives are likely to have on the over-working/long working hours debate?

Ronald Burke:

In general I would think that greater flexibility would have some positive effects. Individuals would have more choice, control and likely achieve a better fit of their hours worked to their preferences.

AC: How do you envisage the global economic slowdown impacting the long work hours culture?

Ronald Burke:

I would expect that the global "recession" would increase the number of hours that people holding jobs will work. More insecure, more work to do, a need to impress the boss that I am committed in this rough patch.

AC: Finally, do you have any closing statements you would like to make?

Ronald Burke:

Our work has focused primarily on the developed and industrialized world since this is where most of the research has been carried out. Yet labourers and farm workers in Mexico, South America, Asia and Africa may very well work even longer hours for fewer rewards and we have not yet considered these people. We hope to consider this in the near future.

December 2008.

The Long Work Hours Culture: an interview with Ronald Burke & Cary Cooper