What if

I’m not allergic to work. I’ve never been allergic to work. In fact, I used to have a masochistic obsession with working overtime when I had jobs that paid by the hour in a hand-written check neatly wrapped up in a benefits package. Back then, being asked to do overtime made me feel important. It validated my work. If my employer was willing to pay time-and-a-half for every hour I worked outside my normal work week, I had to be doing something right. Right?

Getting a seat on the salaried train exposed me to a system that expected me to keep working and working and working without any overtime; I was expected to take solace in the fact that what I was doing was important, vital even, to someone else’s success. Since moving to Budapest, I’ve wised up a little and am now fully behind New York Times bestselling author Timothy Ferriss’s concept of a 4-hour work week! Less is more in my book. Cue platitudes: love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life / work like you don’t need the money / work smarter not harder. But judging by what I’m reading in the papers these days, my love affair with Hungary could soon take a turn for the worse.

More work, less money

Current Hungarian legislation codifies a 40-hour working week. There’s a motion on the mat to have this increased to 44 hours a week before the overtime clock starts ticking. Under legislation proposed by the Economy Minister earlier this month, employers will be able to demand an additional 4 hours of work per week from their employees at the normal hourly rate. It would seem that longer working weeks are on the cards for Hungarian workers.

Now it’s rare that I find myself ever agreeing with Russian President Putin, but this particular two ruble’s worth of insight caught my eye. He’s on record as describing extending the working week as an ‘absolutely groundless method’ of generating profit.  Mind you, this was in answer to Mikhail Prokhorov’s proposition to increase the working week by 20 hours to 60 hours. In Hungary, we’re only talking 4. But is that what’s really behind the government’s move to extend the working week? Increase profits by way of increased productivity?

Fewer hours, more productivity

But wait…it wasn’t all that long ago – 1969 in fact – that Harry Trend compiled his report for Radio Free Europe editors and policy staff. Under the illuminating title Reduction in Hours Stimulates Labor Productivity in Hungary, it cites research into the effects of the 1968 move to reduce the working week to 44 hours, a move which gave rise to fears that a shorter working week would result in more overtime and more staff, and less productivity and less service. It all came to nothing. In fact, not only did productivity increase, overtime decreased. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened there! Unlike John Ruskin, I’m neither a genius nor an economist, but that doesn’t stop me applauding the foresight he showed in 1850 when he listed three things necessary for people to be happy in their work: ‘They must be fit for it. They must not do too much of it. And they must have a sense of success in it.’ Now seriously – is this rocket science we’re dealing with?

Doing too much

According to OECD figures, in 2008, Hungarians worked an average of 1988 hours (ranking 5th behind Korea, Greece, Chile, and the Czech Republic ) while at the opposite end of the scale, Dutch workers put in a mere 1389 hours, followed by the Norwegians, the Germans, and the French. Even Irish workers just put in 1601 hours…and this was before we bungled things so badly. To my untrained eye, it would seem that working longer hours doesn’t really pay off in terms of domestic progress. So what to do?

Well, instead of treading the well-trodden path of business as usual, what if Hungary were to blaze a trail and do what other countries are just talking about? What if it were to shelve the traditional, time-worn measurements of progress in favour of those that measure what matters? What if, instead of focusing on creating jobs, jobs, and more jobs, it paid attention to creating quality jobs? What if it found a way to bring Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow to life: to encourage employers to find the balance between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer? What if instead of invoking longer working weeks, people actually worked fewer hours with incentives to work smarter and work better?

What if?

First published in the Budapest Times 24 June 2011

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