Koan #11: Early Bird And Night Owl

We usually send the situation in one newsletter and results in a following newsletter. Here the situations and results are copied verbatim into one post. Hence, when it says 'you' - it means the subscribers who voted in newsletter, not readers of this archive.
This situation was published in the 12 Apr 2021 newsletter.


You have worked with one of your direct reports for over two years. You notice that for the last month they have always been online before you in the morning and often send you emails after 7pm. Their work is high quality, they always meet deadlines and appear to have strong relationships with other members of the team. What would you do?

Option A - Organise to catch up with them over a (virtual) coffee or lunch before their next 1:1 where you ask them about how they are working during the day.

Option B - Do nothing and monitor the situation. Their work is high quality and they get on with the team and you are sure they would come to you if there was an issue.

Option C - In your next 1:1 mention that you have noticed they seem to be working longer hours recently. Ask them how they feel about it and how they are balancing work and life.

Option D - On the next email you send to them, add at the end that you have noticed they seem to be working longer hours and ask them to let you know if they’d like to discuss it.


The right course of action here is definitely to check with them about the longer hours, as 96% of you suggested. As one of your direct reports, you are in charge of making sure they are being effective in their role and while at the moment they may have just begun to work longer hours, it could easily escalate over time to a point where they stop doing things they enjoy and stop being effective at work. It may also be the case, especially if the person is working remotely, that they have decided to go for a run, or tango lessons (an excellent suggestion from a subscriber) from 12-2pm every day, meaning that they work later into the evening. They may be working the whole day without breaks, as tasks take them longer as they are new to the role or task. When working remotely it is easy to make assumptions and it is important to both notice and ask when changes in work patterns occur. There may also be an easy fix to do with time management, or delaying a project to ensure they can deliver without becoming too stressed. As a subscriber commented, ‘asking about work life balance feels like the right answer here to help understand what is going on in a non-confrontational way.’

Morgan McKinley’s 2019 working hours and flexible working survey of 1,500 respondents revealed how despite the increasing adoption of flexibility and the demand for a healthy work-life balance, 91% of white collar office professionals in the UK are working beyond their weekly contracted hours, on average 6.3 hours per week without pay. A study by the TUC showed that UK workers put in the longest hours of employees across the EU in 2019, equivalent to an extra two and a half weeks a year. There appears to be a cultural pressure to work longer hours but we need to do this and can do something about it. Interestingly, there seems to be conflicting opinions about which sectors’ employees are most likely to burn out. Some research during the pandemic has found that those working in construction, manufacturing, wholesale and car repairs are more likely to burn out.

Option D, which 4% of our community chose, may be too informal, and they may not be sure what you are suggesting by asking them about their work hours, even if you already have a good relationship with them. This sort of conversation is much easier, faster and more effective in person/video call, as in Options A and C. Option A may be a good path if you have time before the next 1:1 and it will focus on this specific point, rather than getting lost with other things, and could be followed up on in the 1:1. This would also give you an idea of why their behaviour has changed in an informal way. As one subscriber commented, ‘As there is no issue with their work then any interventions or conversations need to be supportive and developmental rather than potentially seen as punitive.’

Whichever option feels best for you and your direct report, you need to strike a balance between ensuring that you are giving lots of praise for the excellent work that they are doing, and ensuring that they are able to keep up the high quality work. This would ideally be whilst working fewer hours so that they do not feel that their work is their only meaningful contribution in life, and that they do not become too stressed and burn out. As was commented on this week, it may be that you as the line manager are giving the wrong impression regarding work hours, ‘ if our higher ups are setting examples like this then it’s worth challenging them on this too’. A point well made.

Stress and burnout can be thought of as the same thing, but stress is more about too much of something; emotions, tasks or demands but with a sense that if it is under control things will be ok. Burnout however, is about not enough and thus feeling empty, lacking motivation and doubting your sense of self. Burnout can present itself in three key areas; Physical and emotional exhaustion, Cynicism and Detachment and Ineffectiveness and Lack of Accomplishment. The first can lead to physical symptoms, like headaches and stomachaches or intestinal issues. We don’t often know how our colleagues are sleeping or eating, but if they are doing neither well it will carry over into their work so do ask about this openly. Emotional exhaustion causes people to feel drained, unable to cope, and tired. As a result they lack the energy to get their work done. Cynicism and detachment can escalate and affect the whole team. It seems that at the moment they are working well with others, so make sure to encourage them to come to any social events. Finally, if they start to become irritable or respond to your questions in a defensive way, this could be a sign that they are struggling so ensure you find out how they are spending their time to try and work out a solution together. Here you can download a practical guide with questions to check for burnout and high levels of stress.

We hope that this will help you to understand why if someone is working longer hours this is often not the most effective thing for the organisation, and have some idea of how to support your team with this.