Is Jack Ma right when he says long hours make employees happier?

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Jack Ma
Joe Nicholls

This article is by Joe Nicholls from Hodge Jones and Allen. 

Jack Ma made headlines recently for suggesting that “996” culture was good for business and that employees would see the benefits of hard work. The Alibaba co-founder and Executive Chair believes that working 9am – 9pm, 6 days a week makes employees happier.

It’s difficult not to be sceptical of his motivations however. Jack Ma who is reportedly worth £30 billion may have entirely commercial, selfish reasons for wanting to drive productivity out of his empire of workers.

There’s little evidence to support his claims that employees benefit in any sustainable way from this way of working.

Conversely, regularly companies both in the UK and abroad announce that they are moving to a four day working week, on the basis that they achieve more output from their employees. The logic is that employees are happier, with some reports claiming they’re also between 20-30% more productive as a result of having a better work life balance.

There are then limitations imposed by various employment rights to consider. With employees only being legally able to work a maximum of 48 hours a week unless they sign an opt out and with strict entitlements to regular breaks both during the working day and between working days, 996 culture starts to be become problematic for UK businesses to adopt.

Factor in statutory protection against disability discrimination, indirect sex discrimination around childcare and the right to flexible working and this way of working starts to become impossible to implement risk free.

There are broader issues at play, such as the lack of subsidised child care in the UK compared with many European countries and the rapidly increasing rates of depression, stress and anxiety leading to long term sickness absence, which makes a shorter week beneficial to improved health, wellbeing and a better family life balance.

Productivity in the UK is the lowest in the G7 and there is no simple solution. The evidence suggests that the solution for UK businesses is not to increase demands on presentism and increased working hours, not least because the legal framework would all but prevent it from being enforceable.

Creating a culture that embraces flexible working can foster an output driven approach without compromising your employees’ health and wellbeing, or their productivity.

Effectively if you have the right infrastructure, contractual obligations and policies this can give your employees more freedom in how they achieve the results that you need them to.

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