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A festive workload is an unwelcome Christmas present

WITH THE festive break almost upon us, I wonder how many FDs will enjoy an uninterrupted holiday, and how many of us will be in the office. This work/life dichotomy was recognised as long ago as the 1800s and the term was first coined in the 1970s in the UK.

I believe that work stress has increased due to globalisation, and those of us in businesses with operations in multiple time zones are afforded little peace. Technology is an underlying cause of today’s punishing routines whereby contact with the workplace is maintained constantly. The Institute of Directors endorses good technology as a key to enabling people to work seamlessly wherever they are, as if this is a virtue. In many respects, today’s FDs are liberated by technology and no longer have to visit the post office during a day off to fax a hand-written report to the office to get it typed, but the downsides are obvious.

National Stress Awareness Day was observed on 6 November, and one estimate of the annual cost of absence due to stress said it was £6bn in the UK. A survey by Hiscox showed that the recession has hit businesses emotionally as well as financially, with 33% of SME directors increasing their working hours by 12 hours per week, and 38% suffering from stress. Many reported that presenteeism is rife among staff, suggesting a high level of insecurity, anxiety and workload. Another survey by FD Recruit revealed that only 30% of FDs achieve work/life balance, with 25% stating they do 15 hours of overtime each week.

For many FDs, pressures of the business cannot be ignored. Projects cannot be left unfinished, and the cash continues to flow. Most of us are constantly on call. The festive break does tend to be the time when most things close down, albeit briefly, but many of us will be tempted to use this time to plan, strategise and think.

I am as guilty as the next person in saving certain tasks for my so-called free time, and I have established a regular pattern of working at home on the cerebral stuff, preparing for events, planning presentations and catching up with the reading. I find that my office desk extends to my home life, sleep is frequently preceded by work-related reading, and my emails intrude constantly.

Another dimension to this out-of-hours devotion is that I have to invest significant free time in work-related professional activities such as attending conferences and events, maintaining my CPD, entertaining customers and other professional contacts, travelling and a range of other random obligations – including the ones that my golf-loving CEO is ‘too busy’ to fulfil.

Recently, I have been giving more thought to the work patterns of my staff, most of whom probably work too hard and play golf too little. When the idea of flexible working first became popular, it was seen as a valuable employee benefit that accommodated people’s needs, but that has changed and it has become an unwelcome burden as so many organisations demand flexible working in order to support the now commonplace needs of 24/7 businesses. Flexible working has evolved from the exception to the norm, and is often seen as a euphemism for ‘more working’.

As I plan my time off this Christmas, alongside relaxation, golf and other pleasures, I do have an agenda to which I must give serious thought in a way that would be impossible during the normal working cycle. These are strategic issues that will have an impact on the business throughout next year and beyond and they include: sustainability, cybersecurity, regulation, the new phase of growth, business transformation, and the concept of what the ‘new normal’ is for the business.
To solve any one of these issues would be a welcome Christmas gift but, along with many other FDs, I have consistently failed to crack the one about taking proper time out without feeling the pangs of guilt. So my New Year resolution is to work on improving my golf.

In November, the SFD visited Dallas on business and witnessed first-hand some recollections of a certain tragic event that occurred there exactly 50 years ago, and reminisced about what might have been. That famous pioneer of work/life balance suddenly had no time left for his beloved golf.

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