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"Working flat out"

More lifestyle choices or total exhaustion: There are pros and cons to flexible working hours says ergonomist Georg Bauer. In this interview he talks about the effects of digitalization and how to feel healthy and satisfied at work.
By Thomas Gull and Roger Nickl; translated by Karen Oettli-Geddes
Portrait Georg Bauer
Ergonomist Georg Bauer at the Impact Hub in Zurich-Selnau: "Digitalization has led to increased workloads and staff feeling they are being more strictly monitored." (Photo: Stefan Walter)


Georg Bauer, your research looks at healthy ways of working. Is the way you work healthy too? 

Georg Bauer: My job as researcher and instructor certainly comes with high pressure and demands. But I have a team of highly motivated people who are a pleasure to work with. And when your work involves topics that you find fascinating and your environment is right, it's easier to handle the pressure.

What specific steps do you take to stay healthy at work? 

As a team we have come to an agreement: We make a point of taking coffee breaks together and usually eat lunch together. This helps each of us to wind down but also to appreciate and support each other and to reduce stress. We also discuss which goals we can realistically set ourselves. And we have made clear rules on how and when each of us is reachable by text message, e-mail or phone – and when not. This all helps to prevent unnecessary stress. Personally, I watch my health by walking a good 8,000 steps a day. 

Work can stress us and make us sick, but it can also make us feel happy and satisfied. Your research covers both these aspects. How can work be a source of happiness? 

The most important thing is the content of your work. Work should have a meaning that you can identify with.  It's important to know the value your work has for the organization or – even better – for society. Also important is the quality of the work, how it is organized and whether you are working in a positive social environment. In the end, it's quite simple: Work is good when unnecessary stress is reduced, and resources enhanced.

Those people able to view their work as meaningful are privileged. But less educated people are maybe forced to accept jobs that don't feel so meaningful. Does that mean they are doomed to get sick? 

According to surveys, approximately 80 percent of employees consider their work meaningful.  As academics, we must perhaps be careful that we don't just view our own kind of work as meaningful, as there's a lot to be gained from other types of jobs too. People responsible for cleaning hospitals, for example, can also see their work as highly important. Which it is too, since it is fundamental to the well-being of the patients. 

At the moment the working world is being reinvented. How do you see these changes?

One result of digitalization is that work is being organized on a more decentral basis. Staff can work more flexibly in terms of time and location. Smaller, more agile teams are being set up, some of which are fully capable of organizing themselves. This means that individuals are assuming more self-responsibility.  

That sounds quite attractive, but can it also put some people under pressure? 

The positive aspect is that people have more opportunities to design their own working model. But an organization mustn't demand too much from its staff by setting them unrealistic targets. More autonomy in scheduling your own working hours is only good to a certain extent. If, however, the result is too much pressure, it's counterproductive. 

In early 2000, sociologist Richard Sennet wrote his famous book Der flexible Mensch[the flexible person] in which flexibilization was presented in a negative light, i.e. as a means of exploitation. Was Sennet right? 

A survey in Germany shows that today already around 60 percent of people use digital technologies in their work and therefore generally work more flexibly. 50 percent of those surveyed said that their work had become much more intense as a result. Workloads have increased, and people also feel they are being more strictly monitored, because digitalization makes it easier to measure an employee's performance. In this respect, there are indeed negative effects. While 21 percent say they have more freedom in decision-making, 13 percent say they have less. The bottom line is that digitalization tends to lead to reduced resources and increased workloads at the moment.  

So, working in the digital age means more stress, more uncertainty and more monitoring? 

Yes, we're expected to do more and do it faster than in the past. The fact is that technological advances lead to an accelerated pace and more monitoring – at least, for the moment.    

Digitalization also shifts the boundary between work and free time. People do some of their work at home, sometimes also in the evenings. Or they spread their work across the whole day, because they are taking care of children at the same time. What are the effects of this development?

Ideally, we should be able to work when and where it suits us best. If I can make my own decisions on whether I do something for work at the weekend or in the evening, it's then easier to combine my working and private life and I feel I have more autonomy. I can also recharge my batteries better because I can take breaks when I need to. In principle, annual working-time models enable people to better spread their work across the year and accommodate personal goals. For example, they can temporarily reduce their working hours, to pursue further education perhaps. Seen in this light, flexibilization has much positive potential. 

What are the negative sides? 

The other extreme is flexibilization that is steered entirely by the employer. Being subject to such a high degree of external influence totally restricts an employee's feeling of autonomy and makes it difficult for them to switch off from work and relax. However: Even when an employee is given more self-responsibility for when and where they work, the effects can still be negative. Since the length of an employee's presence at work is no longer the key criteria for being paid, flexibilization is closely linked to performance agreements that have to be met. Unfortunately, employees often agree to unrealistically high target agreements because they want to be seen as high-achieving and trustworthy. This can lead to what is known as interested self-endangerment in that people work as long and hard as it takes to reach their agreed targets – but at the cost of their health.

Swiss Parliament is currently discussing a revision of the labor law. The plan is to make working hours more flexible, such as permitting Sunday working, and raising the number of permitted working hours per week. What's your view on this? 

In general, I'd advise against extending working hours too much. This would result in people working ever longer. Studies prove that those who can work flexibly work around 90 minutes more a week than someone with fixed working hours. They also work more intensively. Because their work is divided up into smaller segments, they have to work flat out in order to be able to finish before their next "break", which is maybe to look after the children. The working day thus consists of a series of final spurts – which means that relaxing is even more important. This is why employers shouldn't limit free time too much and it's essential that working hours continue to be recorded to ensure that staff don't overwork. The main problem with these political initiatives is that they don't include any regulation on who will have the decision-making power over this greater flexibility — the employer or the employee.

Employers are probably looking to get the most out of their employees. And as long as they don't get sick, everything's all right, isn't it? 

That's one point of view. However, many modern employers are also well aware that what is needed for staff to feel engaged is an environment rich in resources.  With the working environment becoming increasingly personalized, people need to be given the knowledge on how best to construct it. For this there are concepts such as job crafting.

What is that all about?

Questionnaires are used to find out what it is that causes employees the most pressure at work, where resources lie, and what they want to change. Then we help them develop ways of better planning their time or for coming to more appropriate target agreements with their boss, for example. What's also interesting besides job crafting is boundary crafting, since it's becoming increasingly important to better manage the boundary between your working hours and free time. This includes ensuring that things that stress you at work don't encroach on your private life too much – or vice versa. Besides these individual approaches, work quality can also be improved in teams. On this topic we've teamed up with partners to develop the first digital coach designed for managers (see box on the left).

Work-life balance is one of the catch phrases used when talking about a healthy and satisfying working life. So when is work and life balanced?

That's a very individual phenomenon. Basically it's when we hold the various areas of our life that are important to us in balance – in terms of time, emotions and social aspects.   

That means that for some people this could mean working 50 hours a week, for others just 30 hours?

That also depends on your current life phase. When you're young and building a career, you work more; then later, when you have a family, maybe somewhat less.

You said that relaxing has become more difficult because our life today is often very tightly scheduled. What's your advice here? 

We must make a conscious point of establishing how much time we need to recharge and how flexibly we can and want to work. We showed in one of our studies that people who practically eliminate the boundary between work and private life have much more trouble winding down. And that explains why they have more health problems. My first piece of advice would therefore be to schedule your day in such a way that relaxation times are not always interrupted. The second is that physical activity is the best way of re-energizing – especially when your work is of an intellectual nature. Physical activity is stress-busting and releases happy hormones, both of which help to recharge your batteries.

In that case, jogging is not a bad idea for managers?

If it's not the high-performance version that involves pushing yourself to the limit, then yes.

Jogging is better than the sauna?

You could say that. Plus: Social relationships are good for us too as they enable us to share ideas and feel part of a community. All of this strengthens us. 

What can an organization do to ensure that its staff stay healthy and fit?

The key factor is a staff-oriented corporate culture which is shaped by an appreciation of the workforce and their well-being. And for this you need open communication, trust and fairness towards staff. Of course, it's not so easy to change a corporate culture, but the change process can be supported by, for example, regularly surveying working conditions and employee satisfaction and making adjustments where necessary.

Do we have to change our attitude to work in general?

Absolutely. Organizing work has become more challenging. We should keep asking ourselves what is important to us in our job and in our private life, what makes us stronger, and what bothers us. We must be more active in designing our working lives ourselves; and we can also be more assertive in demanding good working conditions, since organizations are becoming increasingly dependent on committed hard-working staff. In this way, the future offers great potential for designing new working forms.

Weiterführende Informationen

UZH Magazin

This article was published in UZH Magazin 4/18.