Workplace culture: why it’s time to bust the myth of the ‘ideal worker’

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Many company cultures require people to compartmentalise their lives and prioritise work over all else, but research has proven that this is detrimental not just to employee wellbeing, but to the bottom line as well.

I just got off the phone from my daughter who is travelling for work. This week she flew overnight, had four hours sleep and then worked until 1am every night, only to go straight to the airport for another flight, thankfully this time to go on holiday.

She has asked her team not to contact her in the next five days. Reasonable? You would think so, but research suggests it may be putting her career at risk.

By expecting this kind of dedication, managers pressure employees to become what sociologists have called ‘ideal workers’: people totally dedicated to their jobs and always on call.

The media would have us believe this is a feature of jobs in sectors like law, banking and for senior leaders, and we see the same in the civil service, media and HR.

Any suggestion of meaningful outside interests and dedication to family can be interpreted as a lack of commitment to the organisation and their career.

An 'ideal worker'

To be an ideal worker, you must choose to prioritise your job over your life and even your health.

It is difficult to talk about this at work, let alone challenge, because many people believe that achieving success requires them to work long intense hours.

A research project was launched in 2016 by Erin Reid an associate professor at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business and Lakshmi Ramarajan, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, to understand how people manage the expectations put upon the ideal worker and the impact of their strategies to manage expectations.

Having an identity that relies so heavily on their professional lives makes people particularly vulnerable when it comes to career threats like redundancy.

Interviews conducted with hundreds of professionals in a variety of fields, including consulting, finance, architecture, entrepreneurship, journalism, and teaching suggest that being an ideal worker is often neither necessary nor beneficial.

The majority of employees find it difficult to let go of other aspects of themselves and focus only on work. They grapple painfully with how to manage their lives holistically.

The solutions they arrive at may allow them to navigate the stresses, but they often suffer serious consequences. There are consequences for the organisation too, in the form of a lack of trust, disengagement and dishonesty.

The research found that people adopt one of three strategies to manage the expectations of being an ideal worker.

Accepters

These people fully devote themselves to work. They give in to the cultural norms and conform.

At one consulting firm studied, 43% of the people interviewed fell into this group. ‘Accepters’ prioritise their work and sacrifice or suppress other aspects of who they are. This sacrifice ranges from time with family, to hobbies and non-work passions.

When work is enjoyable and rewarding, an accepting strategy may be beneficial allowing people to work hard and find meaning.

Having an identity that relies so heavily on their professional lives, however, makes people particularly vulnerable when it comes to career threats like redundancy.

People who adopt the ideal worker strategy tend to find it hard to work with and manager those who do not.

As a result, accepters can perpetuate the ideal worker expectations in an organisation.

Passers

This strategy devotes time to non-work activities - but under the radar. At the consulting firm in the study, 27% of the participants fell into this group.

These people were ‘passing’, a term originally used by sociologist Erving Goffman to describe how people try to hide personal characteristics, such as physical disabilities or race, that might stigmatise them and subject them to discrimination.

Consultants who were successful in passing got good performance ratings and were seen as always available, in other words they successfully fooled their boss.

Strategies for passing varied based on the nature of the job and included things like taking assignments a long way from head office, using client visits as a cover for time off, using technology as cover for non-work activities, like out of office notifications implying they were involved in business meetings.

There is an increasing amount of media coverage as well as research that suggests this model is damaging for individual workers and organisations.

The cost of this strategy means people are not being honest or able to express their full range of interests, or express who they are outside work.

Passers tended to be insecure, inauthentic and disengaged, with a high turnover rate.

Passing as an ideal worker makes it hard to manage others. Managers who ‘pass’ are torn between encouraging others to be ideal workers, which they don’t personally believe in, or encouraging them to also ‘pass’, which many cannot do.

Revealers

There are the people who openly share other parts of their lives and some also ask for flexible work to help this.

At the consulting firm in the study, 30% of those interviewed pursued this strategy. Although it’s often assumed that these people are primarily women with families, the research did not find gender differences.

Revealing allows people to be open and fully known by colleagues - but it can have damaging career consequences.

At the consulting firm, performance reviews and promotion data showed that revealers paid a substantial penalty.

The experience of revealing their non-work commitments and being penalised for doing so can make it difficult for people to manage others.

Like passers, revealers may struggle with encouraging their subordinates to accept ideal-worker pressures, but they may shy away from advising resistance because they know the costs.

Is the ideal worker actually ideal?

One thing this research calls into question is the personal/organisational benefits of creating a culture that expects people to be ideal workers.

There is an increasing amount of media coverage as well as research that suggests this model is damaging for individual workers and organisations.

One study by Frankort and co from Cass Business School, took data from a random sample of 51,895 employees from 36 European countries and compared people in similar jobs and education levels.

It found that it is not just long hours that are harmful to employees’ physical and mental health, it is also the intensity of work - the tight deadlines and relentless pace.

Counterintuitive results

The research also suggests that intense work harms career prospects, in direct opposition to the beliefs of the ideal worker.

Career damage occurs because excessive hours and intensity reduce the quality of the work.

The study says the level of intensity applied to work (defined as the level of effort supplied per unit of working time) is generally a stronger predictor of unfavourable heath and career outcomes than just working long hours.

"Compared with long hours, work intensity predicts much greater reductions in wellbeing and positive career outcomes," said Hans Frankort.

These ideal workers suffer career issues including reduced levels of satisfaction and security and fewer promotions, when they worked at an intense level for long periods. The report suggests the career benefits of excessive work effort may never materialise.

“It may be a mistake to accept reduced wellbeing in the hopes of improving future career prospects,” added Frankort.

Previous research has suggested long, intense hours are detrimental to productivity, with workers prone to making mistakes, becoming anxious and burning out.

Alexandra Michel of the University of Pennsylvania studied bankers over nine years and found that by the third year of overwork their bodies started ‘taking revenge’, leading to tics such as nail-biting and hair-twirling, and insomnia.

It’s not just about the hours, though. Indeed, Frankort’s conclusion is that employers and government should try to reduce work intensity rather than try to control excessive hours.

The solutions

These are three steps that leaders and managers can take to create a richer definition of what it means to be an ideal worker—without sacrificing high performance:

  1. Choice: give employees a choice about where and how they work. This can alleviate pressure by allowing them to choose the order, method and pace of work, as well as determining hours and breaks. Some governments like France have recognised the dangers of extensive hours and intensity and have granted workers the ‘right to disconnect’ at the end of the working day. Some employers, including Volkswagen, have also adopted this policy.
     
  2. Bring your whole self to work: people in leadership positions can avoid a culture that values ideal worker norms by deliberately cultivating their own non-work identities: a civic self, an athletic self, and a family-oriented self. Professionals say when they defined themselves solely in terms of work, professional struggles and setbacks made them miserable. Ironically, as they broadened focus, they found more professional fulfillment. As leaders become more resilient, they may also learn that employees whose lives are better balanced create value for the organisation.
     
  3. Change the definition of success: leaders can start to change work norms by pointing out the positive things that employees’ outside activities bring to the workplace. One Australian arm of a large accountancy firm expects their consultants to have outside interests, to volunteer and perform civic duties, recognising that the contacts and profile created eventually also helps the firm. People who pursue outside activities are exposed to experiences, specialised knowledge, and networks that wouldn't be available to them if they had spent that time at the office.

The research suggests that if employees felt free to draw some lines between their professional and personal lives, organisations would benefit from greater engagement, more-open relationships, and more paths to success.

These changes don’t have to be pushed by a senior leader within the organisation, they can be effectively implemented at the team level and indeed, the research suggests it’s important that we do.

The ‘ideal worker’ doesn’t exist, so it’s time to stop trying to make the workers we do have fit that mould.

Interested in this topic? Read Employee wellbeing: do you foster a culture of self-care in the workplace?

About Jan Hills

Jan Hills is the author of several books including Brain-savvy Woman. You can read more on creating an inclusive culture in the book. Her company Head Heart + Brian uses an understanding of neuroscience in leadership development, gender consulting and inclusion. 
 

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