Before I started my first job, my father gave me this piece of advice: “When it's time to leave, make sure you ask, ‘Is there any more I can do?’ before you go. Nobody likes a clock-watcher who’s out the door as the clock strikes 5pm.” I took this to heart and spent most of my early twenties believing that the key to success at work was being the last one to leave.
Despite this belief, though, my first job was very different. My boss had left a big city job to start his own company primarily because he was tired of being tired. He would happily leave on the dot of 5.30pm to put his kids to bed and would firmly tell me to do the same. In his mind, if you couldn’t get the job done during working hours, then there was something wrong. This should have made him the dream boss, but I didn’t appreciate it. All around me, my friends were moaning about their late nights in the office – they teased me for being a slacker, because I was always free in the evenings. Instead of appreciating my early nights, my ego started to worry. Was my ability to clock off on time not a work perk, but instead a sign that my career simply wasn’t as good as theirs?
When I moved from the easy-going start-up to a national newspaper, I decided that my life of coasting out of the door at 5.30pm was over. I was going to be one of those people toiling away at their desk until everything was done – I was going to prove how big and important my job was by spending as many hours at my desk as I possibly could.
The reality is that it’s not how long you’re in the office that counts – it’s what you’re doing when you’re there. We can all work shorter hours – we just have to want to
I’d tell my friends I couldn’t see them because I was simply too busy at work, too many deadlines, too much to do. The horrible part of this is that I actually liked saying that. I liked cancelling on the people I loved the most because it meant I was doing something important – I was worthwhile. Or, at least, that’s what I thought it said. Because, despite spending my first year hunched over my computer as the sun set, nobody within the building seemed to notice.
I only realised how far off base my “always on” strategy was when a colleague – a man who always made sure he had a “meeting” in his diary at 4pm so he could leave the office – then was promoted ahead of me. The reality is that it’s not how long you’re in the office that counts – it’s what you’re doing when you’re there. We can all work shorter hours – we just have to want to.
All the research shows that regularly working over 40 hours a week harms your productivity. And that doesn’t just mean that when you’ve pulled an all-nighter for a pitch that you’re not going to be as productive the next day – it means that, when you’ve had a week of leaving half an hour later every day, your productivity has been shattered for the entire next week. You might think you’re doing more but, long-term, you’re doing less.
And if that hasn’t convinced you, then here’s the best reason: regularly working long hours has been linked to heart disease, anxiety and even Alzheimer’s. So, you’re not just harming yourself in the short term, you’re wrecking your health in the long term, too.
So, how do we leave on time when everyone around us is obsessed with working late? Well, first of all, make sure people know about the work that you do. Presenteeism is cherished because it’s a simple way to measure hard work. Counter this by making sure your boss knows what you’re working on and how much you’ve got done, all within contracted hours. Nobody resents a high-performer leaving on time.
Have a clear time when you want to leave in your mind. It’s not surprising that the most productive people are those who have to get home to pick up kids – they simply can’t leave late. So, look at booking things in which mean you have to leave the office on time – this might be a class or a catch-up with a friend. Having somewhere to be ensures you get out of the door.
Know what you have to have done in order to leave the office. If you’re someone who can’t bear an untidy desk, mentally prepare to leave 15 minutes earlier, so that you have time to tidy it. If you find it really hard to leave on time, take a tip from my former colleague and book an external meeting into your diary at the end of the day – it’s much easier to head for home when you’re already out of the office.
And, finally, if you manage a team, realise that your actions set the standard for your team. If you’re there until all hours, then your team will think they have to be as well, so you’re not just harming your health, you’re also harming theirs. So, leaving on time isn’t about doing something for yourself – you’re doing it for the rest of the world, too.