40 hours? 50 hours? 60 hours? 70 hours? . . . How many hours do you work in an average week?
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Recently we shared some data regarding the work habits of New Zealand rural principals. One confronting statistic was that 47% of the group were working 60 hours or more on average! Here’s the chart this number is based on.
Chart 1 shows the average hours per week worked by NZ Rural Principals
I shared this information with a small group of non-teaching friends last weekend and the general, off the cuff reaction was something like;
“So what? That’s what all managers/professionals/leaders do these days.”
And right there lies the fundamental problem – for some crazy reason people see the status quo as OK.
Well, that’s not how I see it, because –
Multiple studies have shown that from a pure productivity perspective, working beyond 50 hours is counter productive – the longer you work past this number the less you get done.
Multiple studies have shown that from a wellness perspective, working beyond 50 hours makes you sick.
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So why do so many smart people ignore the data and push on past the safe limits? To answer this question we have to look back into history a little.
When the industrial revolution kicked off in the 18th century, it became very common for workers to clock huge hours (12 – 16 a day, 6 days per week). This abuse was not accepted by all and in 1817 a well known industrialist, Robert Owen, coined the phrase, “8 hours labour, 8 hours recreation, and 8 hours rest”.
It took another 100 years before the majority of developed countries agreed that this was a good idea and in 1919 there was the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention where 52 countries ratified an intention to limit the hours people worked (thanks Wikipedia!).
It took even longer for Governments to actually enforce any suggested limits. And in a great many cases, they made exceptions – if you work as a principal in New Zealand you are one! Your contract says;
“shall work such hours as may be reasonably required to enable them to properly fulfill their responsibilities whether or not such hours may exceed 40 hours per week.”
So despite the research around what working excessively long hours means, even your employer is encouraging you to keep going!
This all forms part of the “why” – why we continue to work more hours than is effective or healthy. We are operating in a way that comes from a past time when a ‘good’ worker worked ‘hard’ and the ‘hard’ was judged largely by how many hours were clocked. The fact that your 2021 employment contract encourages you to ignore an effective limit says volumes about the difficulty of making change in public education at all levels . . .
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But we know better now. That 100 year old “8 hour working day” was just a stab in the dark. It wasn’t based on any research.
Way back in 1817 Robert Owen probably didn’t have a lot of productivity data to draw on but he did have practical experience of what too much work did to peoples’ wellness (and he didn’t like it).
So we can approach this topic from both a productivity angle and a wellness angle.
Lets start with productivity. A well known study (2014) by Professor John Pencavel of Stanford University, found that productivity per hour declines sharply when a person works more than 50 hours a week. After 55 hours, productivity drops so much that putting in any more hours would be pointless. And, those who work up to 70 hours a week are only getting the same amount of work done as those who put in the 55 hours.
More recent studies have narrowed the productivity data even further. Based on current research, many scientists agree that the maximum time people are productive each day is approximately 6 hours. 6 hours! Some of you will have passed that mark before lunch time!
Which brings us to the wellness aspect of working 50 hours plus – it’s not good for us.
In a meta analysis of 243 published papers over the last 20 years, there was a clear (and frightening) link between long work hours and the following medical problems: cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, and poor sleep.
These are all serious issues, which are backed up by the anecdotal evidence that Steve and I have that many of you are currently medicated for either cardiovascular issues or anxiety. Sadly, New Zealand school leaders seem to match the international data very closely!
And as usual, the cavalry is not coming.
You are the only person who can set a reasonable cap on your regular working hours. It is crystal clear in the research that the upper limit for productivity and health is no more than 50 per week. Somewhere below this would be better.
It’s time to be more professional¹ folks.
¹ A 40 Hour Project definition – “being professional is working in a way that is both effective and sustainable.”
Photo by Leon
The busier you are, the harder it is to find the time and energy necessary to reflect on even small things.
Which is likely the reason you usually buy a particular brand of toothpaste when at the supermarket. And also the same reason that it’s tough to step back and consider bigger things – things like how you do the job called school leadership.
One excellent way past this road block is called a sabbatical, another is to be confronted with some shocking data.
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A week ago, Steve and I were fortunate enough to be invited to a principal conference in New Plymouth, New Zealand. The delegates were mainly leaders from small, rural schools where the principal often has to teach as well as lead. They wear a lot of different hats.
During a short presentation, we asked four simple questions directly related to delegates’ personal wellness and by association, their long term effectiveness as leaders – hours worked, stress, sleep, and exercise.
This is what they told us:
1. Hours worked
In New Zealand, fulltime work is considered to be 30 hours or more per week and in 2020, the average NZ man meeting that definition worked 37 hours and the average NZ woman just over 30.
However, 92% of the conference delegates worked 50+ hours per week and nearly half (46%) worked 60+!
This is even more intense than the latest national data regarding principal workload. Leading small schools is a tough gig.
2. Stress level
Stress is a tricky thing to quantify and is obviously subjective, but nearly half of the delegates reported operating in a constantly stressed state.
The chart above tells it’s story clearly – this group of leaders are constantly working in a sleep deficit. We know from the current science that regular poor sleep is dangerous for both physical and mental health.
4. Exercise – the WHO says that you need at least 5 hours of moderate aerobic exercise per week, plus 2 muscle strengthening sessions.
Only 11% of the delegates are doing the minimum recommended exercise. A whopping 41% are doing almost none!! When we looked at the total data set, there is a strong correlation between those working exceptionally long hours and a lack of exercise – not rocket science, but something to note.
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So . . . does any of the information above shock you? It might not surprise you, but does it make you stop for a moment and think? As wise people have noted, the status quo is not a “cost neutral” position and continuing to do the same things yet expecting different outcomes is the definition of crazy.
Your human body and mind don’t care that you are passionate about your job, that you are doing important work, or that you hope you will be an exception to any nasty looking health possibilities – they simply react to what you do to them. Particularly over the longer timeframe.
Where does your own reality sit in relation to the data above? And what would it take to convince you to frame the how of your school leadership in a healthier way?
Not all is doom and gloom though, the numbers above also include individuals who are doing things differently. They still lead schools but they make choices about the how. They sleep better, exercise more, stress less, and work sustainable hours. A more detailed analysis of the data shows that all four outcomes are linked.
And this goodness is not impossible for you – the very fact that you are interested enough to read this post means you are thinking, which is the first step to change.
You can do this too.
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Photo by Nathália Rosa
I like Post-it notes. I like the way they let me capture a task then park it until I’m ready to take action.
Way back at the beginning, I had a principal who carried a small notebook in their top jacket pocket. Anytime you started talking to them they took it out, ready to make a note if needed.
This principal prided themselves on following up, not forgetting, doing what they promised, and in their pocket was a system to make all these things happen.
Post-it notes are my version.
Sadly, while they are an awesome fluro coloured tool, the reason they are in my thinking right now is that they’re multiplying – very quickly! And lots of notes means lots of things to remember and do.
Welcome to the end of Term 4!
This is the time each year where a myriad of tasks and looming deadlines make it very possible that your waking hours are consumed entirely by knocking off task after task. Those of you who have followed the 40 Hour Project for a while, know that this is the time when the ‘busy’ can obscure the ‘important’.
Even the students seem to unwittingly contribute. There are more plasters given out and more social interactions to manage than at any other time through the year – people are getting a bit frazzed.
I spent precious time this morning helping 3 great young boys resolve an issue that started with someone holding a door handle and ended in tears. None of them planned the debacle, and all regretted it, but it does sum up the vibe of late Term 4 – stuff happens.
In amongst this end of year race is your opportunity to be a leader. To focus on people first, spread the calm, and to deliberately aim to finish the year with energy left over and feeling well. We have talked about this before – Madvember Doesn’t Have To Be – but this time I want to focus on the power of calm.
To impact your team positively a key is to manage perception. I like the duck analogy where they are paddling like hell under the water but up on top all looks serene. It’s the bit on top that your people will notice.
A personal strategy I use to try and spread a sense of calm, is to deliberately move slower the busier I feel. This may sound simplistic but it absolutely helps – body language is the language that people notice most and if you are moving around your site in a rush, it sends a message. So slow down and breathe. Stop to talk with kids and adults, volunteer to cover someone’s duty, and at all times move slowly. And it’s not all acting – research shows slowing down and breathing properly changes your mental state. A win/win for you and your school.
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Which brings me to where I started with the Post-it notes.
I realized that when they’re plastered all over my desk/laptop/office, they tell a story to all who see them. They visually create a similar effect to walking quickly everywhere with no time to pause. They create the impression that I am busy.
So here is my cunning plan – I’m not going to stop using them, I’m going to hide them.
At the very least I get great pleasure from screwing them up and chucking them in the bin when actioned. I’m not willing to forgo that goodness. All I am going to do is stick them inside a plain manila folder. The folder will sit on my desk closed. The notes live on but the story my desk tells will be different. A small, but deliberate action in the face of the run to the finish. Dare you to try it.
There’s something about being in lockdown that has resonated very positively with me. The other day I found myself walking through my neighbourhood during a very pleasant autumnal like, but sunny day. There were people everywhere, walking about, smiling, waving, being genuinely cheerful. All adhering strictly to the 2 metre social distancing requirements, but also obviously enjoying the moment. There was an uncanny sense of optimism in the air.
No one was moving anywhere fast. The speed of life was just a click above sedate. It was bliss.
It occurred to me that during lockdown we’ve all experienced a sense of what life used to be like. A time when there was time and people took time and gave their time. People seemed very happy, and hence the optimism hung thick in the air.
It reminded me of why sports shows use slow motion to such great effect. It gives people time to look at someone else do something amazing (or stupid) at a speed that captures the shear magic of what is going on.
It’s also why athletes talk about being in the moment and literally slowing down time in their minds during their events. They are focused on one thing, and one thing only. The rest of the world slows almost to a stop, so that they can concentrate on just that one movement that will beat their opponent.
Musicians do a similar thing when they’re learning new pieces. If they’re struggling with a riff of notes they’ll slow down the action and speed of playing, only speeding up when they’ve got it under control.
There is something to be learnt here.
In contrast, I found myself at school the other day packing up IT devices to send home to families. Computer cables, ipads, packaging and cellotape strewn everywhere. I’d told the Ministry of Ed that I’d be in and out of my school in one and half hours. Time was of the essence! Speed was king.
For the first hour and fifteen minutes I enjoyed the adrenaline rush of, well, rushing. I hadn’t felt like this in a couple of weeks and I got a kick out of it. When I knew that there was no way I was going to finish in time and that I had to press on regardless, the adrenaline turned to stress and the enjoyment flowed away. It was replaced with angst, agitation, frustration and annoyance. I felt like a washing machine that couldn’t finish it’s last cycle!
I feel the same now as I type this piece. I’ve spent all day planning for Level 3, organising Bubbles, dealing with personnel issues and losing a couple of hours of work due to an IT issue. The washing machine cycle is back! I realised that my usual way of working was often at this speed and intensity. No wonder I am often shattered!
And it made me think. Yes there are times when speed is crucial, but that doesn’t need to be the norm or my usual modus operandi. What if I was to look at the way I work, like that autumnal afternoon in the sun, where I can take my time, enjoy my time, give my time and appreciate the time that I have with others.
We all need to look at what the lockdown has given us – time. We need to understand that constant speed is going to mean constant tiredness, and that the best thing we can learn to do is not speed everything up, but to slow everything down.
I’m keen to hear how you plan to do this when you get back to work? How do you think you could change the culture of your school to embrace “having time to take your time?”