How to Keep Employees Happy in the Age of Longer Workweeks

Are your employees feeling pressured to work overtime? Are longer workweeks becoming more common? Here's how to create a more balanced work environment.
May 07, 2015

As a small-business owner, you’re probably no stranger to longer workweeks. According to a recent study by the consulting and tax firm EY, the rest of the world may be just as overworked. The global survey found that almost half of managers around the world work more than 40 hours a week, and their workweeks have lengthened over the last five years.

“The workweek has continued to lengthen in the same way the cheeseburger has continued to get bigger,” says Scott L. Girard, Jr. of Expert Business Advice and co-author of the Crash Course for Entrepreneurs series“Competition drives everything, and when one person works 40 hours a week, the next guy works 41 hours a week to get ahead of the first guy. Then another guy works 42 hours a week to get ahead of that guy, and so on. The extra work clearly drives results, and getting results is what earns business and wins industries.”

Today’s business atmosphere can be fiercely competitive, and small businesses are having to offer more value year after year just to survive, claims Jeremy Pound, CEO of the internet marketing agency Juicy Results and author of Bootstrapper’s Guide to SEO. “Unfortunately, many small-business owners react by defaulting to asking employees to work more.”

Extended workweeks might be common and produce results, but they can also stress and strain employees, notes Jeff Wolf, president of Wolf Management Consultants and author of Seven Disciplines of a Leader. “Employees exposed to excessive hours make mistakes on the job that can be potentially dangerous in manual labor settings. Longer hours also take their toll on owners. It's difficult to devise plans, analyze opportunities and solve problems when you're walking around in a fog.”

So how can you strike a balance and stay competitive without burning out your employees? Consider these tactics.

1. Be Clear About Your Expectations

You may be motivated to push your own hours because the returns are going into your pocket, but the quickest way to foster a miserable team is to push them as hard as you push yourself, Girard notes. “At a certain point, even with overtime, people just want to go home. This is where the science of management meets the art of leadership. Foster a positive environment where your employees want to stay, or find some way to cross-train or develop rotational schedules.”

Be clear about how much you expect employees to work, advises Nancy D. O’Reilly, a clinical psychologist, founder of Women Connect4Good Inc. and author of Leading Women: 20 Influential Women Share Their Secrets to Leadership, Business, and Life. “Make sure employees realize you don’t expect them to put in the kind of hours that you put in,” she says. “If you don’t spell this out, they might assume you do expect it. They may comply resentfully—which will harm their happiness and thus their productivity—or more likely just quit.”

2. Minimize Stress When Longer Workweeks Are Necessary

Burnout from extended hours may not come so much from the work itself as from the stressful environment in which your employees find themselves working. “Long work hours can be energizing and exciting, if you and your employees like what you’re doing,” O’Reilly says. “If those hours are unnecessarily stressful, however, burnout and high turnover are likely.”

To decrease stress, O’Reilly suggests holding an end-of-the-week debriefing. “Ask employees what stressful problems came up that could have been avoided, and put systems in place to prevent those problems from happening again,” she says.

Flexibility can be equally important. “As a small business, you may not be able to offer the same kinds of benefits a big corporation can provide, but you can offer flexibility, and that is worth a lot to employees,” O’Reilly says. “Most likely, the work ebbs and flows at your business, so use that to your advantage. Take time off when it makes sense for you to do so and urge your employees to do the same. Look for opportunities to say, ‘You worked really hard last week finishing up that big project, so why don’t you take this Friday off?'”

Flexibility can be one of the greatest mitigators of fatigue and burnout, Pound agrees. “People have lives and they need to have the time to go to doctors’ appointments and make time for their families,” he says. “The best team members will enjoy that flexibility without impacting their output or letting other team members or clients down.”

3. Be Fair and Appreciative

If you want to keep talented employees, you should treat and pay them fairly, Wolf warns. “Overworked employees are understandably sensitive to an imbalanced workload where some employees work longer hours or on more complex tasks than others. This is a surefire way to upset your best workers, so be sensitive to this issue.”

When employees do an exceptional job, acknowledge that, Girard urges. “The appreciation may come in the form of a monetary bonus or simply stopping by the employee’s desk to say, ‘I know things haven’t been easy lately, but I just want to tell you that I really appreciate the hard work you’ve been doing.’”

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Photos: iStock