How an ‘always-on’ work culture can create a vicious cycle that damages workers and employers

The glamorisation of high-pressure work environments, like the infamous “996” culture (where staff work from 9am until 9pm six days a week), often portrays relentless dedication and long hours as key to career success.

A PR boss at Chinese tech firm Baidu publicly apologised in May after glorifying a work-till-you-drop culture. Qu Jing advised staff not to expect weekends off and denied any responsibility for employee welfare, saying: “I’m not your mother.”

It is not surprising that there was a public outcry around a culture that discourages a work-life balance. The effects of this can be profound, especially for young workers who want to develop their careers amid blurred boundaries between work and personal life.

And it appears a healthy home life is important to work performance too. In studies we conducted with dual-earner couples aged 40 and over from the US, our results showed that feeling supported at home spills over into the workplace. This can improve both creativity and performance.

Two interesting results came to light. First, our results showed that constant exposure to mobile phones during non-work hours (referred to as “phubbing”) damaged the support and communication between couples at home.

Employees who engaged less with their phones at home were able to enjoy the support and communication of their partner better. As employees, they felt more proactive and energised at work.

Second, by focusing on the times when positive experiences from home cross into the work domain, we found that supportive colleagues (for example, someone who would help out a colleague who had a family emergency) made employees more engaged at work.

Employees who felt supported by their partner (at home) and colleagues (at work) felt energised and “in the flow”, and they contributed to company success by showing creativity and innovation.

The changing workplace

While flexible working has become the norm in the wake of COVID, companies have increasingly been offering more flexibility. Another study shows that young employees who have discretion over when and where they work perform better in their job.

What we noticed was that the employees went above and beyond their work requirements. This piqued our interest, and our follow-up research focused on the factors that contributed to these elevated performance levels.

We found a new type of leadership trait, which we called “family-supportive leadership”. This management style aims to foster a culture that values work-life balance through empathy.

We found working with family-supportive leaders who can show empathy enhances employee performance and wellbeing. Through a family-supportive work culture, employees growing through the ranks are more likely to feel energised at work.

We conducted a meta-analysis (a scientific review of all studies published) on family-supportive leadership to understand the link between this type of leadership, the work culture and employee behaviour.

Our review demonstrated that empathy from a manager improves the performance of employees – as well as the employee’s job satisfaction. It also reduces burnout. The underlying reason for these positives is that family-supportive leadership minimises conflict between work and family as much as possible.

What’s more, these leaders are praised by their teams, which has positive effects on employee morale and motivation. Where work culture supports family and leisure, we found that employees were more creative.

Workers at Chinese search engine Baidu were told not to expect weekends off and to keep their phones on 24/7.
Tada Images/Shutterstock

And in a more recent study that we conducted with young employees and their managers in Mexico – where there is an emphasis on long working hours with men predominantly the breadwinners – we found that family and leisure-supportive culture plays an important role keeping employees engaged. We measured vigour, dedication and absorption around work, which ultimately led to better performance.

In light of the Baidu misstep, it’s crucial to recognise the broader implications of work exploitation in large corporations. When employers prioritise relentless productivity over creating a balance between work and family lives, it perpetuates a cycle of exploitation that places profits over employee wellbeing.

We have some key takeaways for leaders, companies and employees.

  • invest in programmes to develop family-supportive leadership practices and attitudes (for example, reduced workload arrangements or carer support groups)

  • create a culture that’s respectful of the work-family and work-leisure balance. Ensure that norms, behaviour and attitudes respect the non-work lives of employees and pay attention to the boundary between work and family lives

  • be aware of the dangers associated with phubbing and constant phone access. Employees who constantly feel connected develop signs of burnout, exhaustion and depletion over time. A possible solution is to normalise switching off, recovery and relaxation strategies after work and during weekends

  • invest in employee strengths (these areas where they shine at work). This is important, as employees who build on their strengths tend to feel inspired and find meaningfulness in their work.

by : Yasin Rofcanin, Professor of Management Strategy & Organisation, University of Bath

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