Working Longer Hours: The Survivors’ Guide

Sanjeev Sanyal

Jun 07, 2024, 10:21 AM | Updated 10:21 AM IST

Murthy and Shah were trying to make the case for a culture of hard work.
Murthy and Shah were trying to make the case for a culture of hard work.
  • My experience suggests that stress and burn-outs derive less from the number of work hours, and more from the lack of control over time.
  • Business icon and information technology pioneer Narayana Murthy triggered a nationwide debate in October 2023 when he suggested that the youth should be prepared to work 70 hours a week. He added that, “I used to work 84-90 hours a week till I retired”. The debate revived again in June 2024 when well-known financier Nilesh Shah stated that, like in China and Korea, one generation would have to work 12-hour days (implying 84-hours a week) in order to take India to a developed country. Again, these comments attracted some support and lots of criticism about work-life balance, productivity and so on. 

    In both cases, Murthy and Shah were trying to make the case for a culture of hard work. They probably did not expect passing comments to become national debates. This is not a debate where I would normally spend much time, but given the high level of interest in the subject among the youth, it probably needs to be addressed meaningfully.

    Hence, there is a case for older generations to share their experience rather than dump a difficult expectation on the youth. Note that what follows are my personal opinions as a citizen and not based on some systematic research as an economist or policy-maker. Treat it as a stream of consciousness of my thoughts. 

    The first and most important thing is to define “work”. One understanding of the term is to think of it narrowly in terms of the time spent at the desk in office, irrespective of salary and productivity. Too many people have the experience of long unproductive hours wasted at work just to satisfy the egos of superiors.

    One can see why a 70-hour work week, much less an 84-hour one, would be considered a waste unless it is compensated with higher income, the promise of future reward or some higher purpose. Indeed, much of the criticism of Shah and Murthy comes from this understanding of the word. Let me say that I agree that sitting around late in office for a low self-esteem boss is not adding to the national effort. 

    However, there is a larger way to think of “work” as the daily effort made to get something done. This need not always be office work but relate to the full range of human activity: community work, acquisition of skills, personal work (say, house and car repairs), national duties (e.g. paying taxes and voting) and so on.

    While I do not know if Murthy and Shah include them in their definition, these constitute legitimate work in my view. The relative importance of all these kinds of work are obviously a matter of personal circumstances and preferences, but they all require effort, are often unavoidable, and are necessary for national/personal life. 

    Moreover, there is one area where I strongly disagree with the idea that the East Asian model needs to be exactly replicated in India. This relates to the effort needed to procreate and bring up the next generation of workers and taxpayers. The East Asian model (and other developed societies) have made a mistake in not giving this effort its due. This eventually leads to a demographic cliff that will prove very costly in the next decade. The effort put in by parents, particularly stay-at-home mothers, is underappreciated as it is not counted in national accounts.

    No amount of external child-care support can compensate for what parents invest in bringing up children, but this effort is seen as a “waste” as it diverts effort away from conventional definitions of work and often pulls down female labour-force participation rate. Unfortunately, this is a very narrow view of work and the idea of long work-days must include the child-rearing effort. 

    Having clarified what I mean by “work”, let me get back to the issue of how a population can sustain a high rate of work hours per week without burning out. Apart from some breaks and holidays, what else is needed? Let me reiterate that my views here are not derived from any scientific study but from the personal experience of working for decades in time-consuming, stressful jobs; simultaneously making contributions outside of my normal profession; and managing teams of young people who also work long hours. 

    My experience suggests that stress and burn-outs derive less from the number of work hours, and more from the lack of control over time. This is why a ten-hour shift is much more stressful in a newsroom than in your own shop. This distinction leads to rules-of-thumb that young workers and their managers hopefully will find useful:

    First, it is radically easier for a person to put in ten or occasionally twelve hours at work if the person is allowed to manage time on their own. Managers can set tough targets, occasionally review, but must leave the person/team to do it however they wish. If they need to visit a sick relative on some day, meet an income tax deadline or see a friend, let them do it. This rule-of-thumb may not work in all professions in the same way, but can be adapted to suit the situation. 

    Second, if you are doing multiple things, then you must ensure that the deadlines of only one activity takes priority. Throughout my life I have always done multiple things simultaneously but I am always clear that only one of the activities takes precedence. I have written several books while working in financial markets and then as a policy-maker, both stressful professions. The trick is that book-writing does not have hard deadlines except in the very last stage. If a work deadline means that I cannot write a chapter this weekend, then I can always do it the following weekend – no stress. Of course, flexibility could lead to eternal procrastination but that is easily fixed though some self-discipline. 

    Third, do not try to optimize everything or let small things bother you. Small things will go wrong all the time no matter what you do. The time spent fixing every small thing is not worth the trouble; just take it on the chin. Optimize 100% for only the things that matter most to you, for the rest use a simple 80:20 rule; you can get 80% of what you need with 20% of the effort for most things. Be satisfied with the 80%.  Put in that 20% of effort to meet your family, decorate your office/home or even keep up the exercise regime. Too many people get paralyzed by the idea that they have to do it fully or not at all. This is a huge time and stress saver that allows you to push fully for your most important priorities. 

    Fourth, for many activities, it better to start doing the activity with a general plan rather than waste time doing a detailed, prescriptive plan. It will probably not work well in the beginning but take feedback and fix it. Do a few iterations, and it will suddenly start to work. This is simply a lot faster than getting paralyzed trying to create the perfect plan (software professionals will recognize this strategy as “Agile”).

    Obviously, this approach may not work for a large-scale, one-time project, but it works for a surprising range of things in my experience. Equally, it is more fulfilling way to do things than spend time on the tedious details of a theoretical plan. 

    Finally, for the things that matter, remember to do the last 10%. Too many young people feel that they have done all the work and that the last 10% of effort is so simple that it can left unfinished. For example, if you are preparing a power-point presentation, submit it only after the font is appropriate, the spellings are correct, the pages are numbered, the graphs have visible colours and you have got a team-mate to do a general sanity check. This takes a bit of effort, but the outcome looks radically better. 

    The above are just a few rules-of-thumb that I hope will be found to be useful by the incoming generation of workers and their immediate managers (who are often just a few years older). The rules are simple enough and work in most situations. I have learnt them through hard experience and wish someone had explained them to me when I was twenty. Perhaps there are others who will list out additional useful rules from their experience. Success needs sustained hard work as Shah and Murthy have pointed out, but the stress can be reduced to manageable levels. 

    (The author is an economist and bestselling writer. All opinions are personal).

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.