Redundancies vs reduced hours: Juggling workloads through coronavirus

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As furlough fades and redundancies rise, Jonny Gifford examines how workloads differ across the labour market and suggests how reducing employees’ hours can be preferable to shrinking headcount.

A buzzword in recent years refers to the “VUCA” nature of today’s world – Volatile, Unpredictable, Complex and Ambiguous. The basic message is a simple one: the pace of change is increasing. Well, if we weren’t living in VUCA times before, we certainly are now.

The Covid-19 lockdown has been a huge lesson in organisational agility. Employers have had to adapt fast to changes in customer demands, facilitate en masse home working and protect the safety of employees and the public. Clearly this will have created unexpected additional work, but what has been the upshot for most UK employees? Are we under more pressure than normal, or has it been a time of “resource slack”?

Too much or too little work?

In general, the problem of excessive workloads has not become more common during the pandemic. The CIPD’s UK Working Lives survey shows that, in January, two months before lockdown, about three in ten UK employees said they had too much on their plate in a normal week. This has remained fairly consistent through April, May and June.

Similarly, we can see that figures have remained broadly flat for how often UK employees feel “exhausted” or under “excessive pressure”, with about one in five reporting that this is “always” or “often” the case.

On the other hand, we can see a rise in the proportion of employees who have too little work. Across the past few years, a consistent 8-9% of UK workers have said they have too little work, but excluding those who have been furloughed, this increased to 14% for the period of April to June 2020. This reflects the poor state of the UK economy, which the International Monetary Fund predicts will contract by at least 10% in 2020. In general, more employees have been left twiddling their thumbs than have been running to stand still.

Who has too much on their plate?

But this broad picture masks a good deal of variation between different groups of workers. Those designated as key workers are unsurprisingly more likely to be overworked at the moment. Four in ten (39%) key workers reported too much work between April and June, compared to one in four (24%) among other workers. We can see similar, though less pronounced, differences when it comes to how often workers feel exhausted or under excessive pressure at work.

We can also see differences across industries, with health and social care workers in particular being more likely to be overworked, and others such as ICT and construction workers less so. However, it is worth noting that health and social care workers were more likely to be overworked in any case before the pandemic, consistently ranking worst for our measure of excessive workloads. Calls to support the health and social care sector are understandably pronounced at the moment but have relevance beyond the pandemic.

How can managers help?

Cutting hours, rather than jobs is a viable option that benefits society”

An unmanageable workload is a problem to take seriously, as it is likely to compromise service quality and employee motivation, and if left unchecked may reduce productivity and give rise to sickness absence and burnout. So what can be done to alleviate it?

The problem is closely related to having adequate resources – especially having enough time to get one’s job done, which overwork closely correlates with, but also having the right equipment. A related factor is whether a person’s boss is supportive and helps them perform. We can even see a clear correlation with whether or not employees’ bosses have checked in with them about their health and wellbeing during the pandemic.

Solutions to excessive workloads must take these factors into account. Employers must make sure jobs are designed based in the first place based on realistic estimates of what can be achieved in a working day. And managers should review jobs and workloads with their staff through honest and open conversations. Performance conversations should be regular and supportive, not punitive.

In addition, if some employees are still underworked due to the lockdown, managers can look for opportunities to use their time wisely, either developing their capability within their specialism for the longer-term gain, or reskilling and redeploying people to support busier teams.

Thinking ahead: cutting hours, not jobs

The imperative to support employee wellbeing is especially strong at the moment. The lockdown has made juggling work and personal priorities hard for many – especially those who have to look after young children or other dependents – and this can give rise to additional work pressure and stress.

As the effects of recession start to bite, and the drive to do more with less becomes more acute, we can expect these work pressures to increase.

Unfortunately, the CIPD Good Work Index shows that work has become less healthy over recent years. In short, we are not well prepared to weather the impending storm of pressure from the recession.

However, there may be another solution in how employers respond to the recession. With 9.5 million UK workers furloughed, we have so far been protected from many of the employment effects of Covid-19.

Redundancies have already been made but as the furlough scheme wraps up, many more employers will be considering them. But as other research led by Cambridge University shows, cutting hours, rather than jobs is a viable option that benefits society.

The study shows that leaving paid work is related to poorer mental health, whereas people who are working reduced hours or furloughed don’t see any such decline. Employers who do need to reduce production or service provision should certainly make use of the provision for flexible furloughing where they can, and further ahead should consider whether reduced hours may be a partial alternative to redundancies.

Doing so will both help keep people in work and enable employers to spread out workloads between workers, ensuring that overwork doesn’t become endemic. Cutting hours, not jobs, could have benefits all round – for organisations, the economy and society.

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