Wednesday, February 25, 2009

If you must go to work tomorrow, if I were you I really wouldn't bother

Those of you who have noted the frequency with which I update this blog have probably deduced that I am not a whole-hearted admirer of hard work. So you can imagine my delight at reading about a survey that suggested long hours are bad for you.

(An important caveat at this point: the media seems to have contracted a serious dose of survey-ities. Any bit of scientific research, no matter how small or tentative, will get reported as if it were some great definitive truth. You know the sort of thing: Sausages give you cancer, Facebook will kill you, Reading Daily Mail-type journalism reduces your IQ etc. So by responding to this, I'm guilty of something I deplore. Still, this isn't Bad Science, you know.)

However, this study raised more questions than it answered. The thought that, since the sample group consisted of British civil servants, it is possible that they were actually spending several hours a week sitting around doing nothing in the hope of impressing their bosses, and that this might have contributed to the decline in their mental skills, can be dismissed as unkind and unworthy. Probably.

However, there is a possible paradox here. A willingness to work long hours is one of the main attributes needed to gain positions of power and influence. It's a good indicator of being a good arselicker and that - allied to a talent for backstabbing - is a surefire route to the top.

Actual ability comes a poor third. And therein lies the problem. Is it not possible that the type of person who is willing to work long hours has, in fact, less mental capacity than those who would rather go home (or to the pub, or the theatre, or wherever) as soon as they've got their work out of the way? Could we even go so far as to infer that the type of person likely to gain a position which "requires"working long hours is, in fact, the sort of person who should not be given that sort of position? (A look at Britain's politicians, bankers, financial regulators, managers etc might suggest that.*)

The alternative thought – that anyone who attains a position of importance loses the abilities that got them there because of the compulsion to work long hours – is not less depressing.

Of course, this is all complicated by the fact that idleness is not in itself a guarantee of ability. George W Bush was not the hardest-working of US presidents, for instance. Then again, Gordon Brown appears to regard relaxation as a sign of weakness. Neither will, one imagines, be making any list of Great Leaders in the next couple of millennia.

Clearly, more research is needed. I am more than willing to offer myself as a guinea pig: offer me a well-paid, influential job and I am happy to take long lunch breaks, slope off home early and generally skive whenever possible. We'll see if I am any worse than most of the people in positions of power and responsibility.

* I, of course, except any of the hard-working, dedicated and talented people who may employ me from this generalisation.

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