The hours argument

April 21, 2012

In early March I published an article about the number of hours that civil engineers work per week. To encourage a conversation, I posed the question to the ASCE LinkedIn community. The response has been overwhelming. Over 160 posts have been added to the discussion thread making very interesting observations about professional commitment and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

Something of an argument as played out between engineers who feel that extra hours (+40) are necessary to do the job, and engineers should accept the long days provided that they are adequately compensated. A second faction, has argued that overtime is not a foregone conclusion if engineers spend their time efficiently. Besides, there are more important things in life, like spending time with your family. Full disclosure: I find myself leaning toward the latter argument, however, there was a time in my career where I was unfazed by 50+ hour workweeks. My suspicion is that many people participating in the LinkedIn discussion would admit to a similar change-of-heart over time.

I believe that there has been a substantial oversight in the discussion. While we’ve debated whether all time spent at work is spent on work, we have not given similar consideration to whether time spent outside of work has a bearing on work performance or the profession. Although, my work hours have declined in recent years, my time spent considering professional issues has probably increased. I’ve used more time away from the office to participate in several ASCE committees and regularly contribute to this blog. A couple of years ago, I began working with a local artist on some concepts for a solar power generating art installation. I’ve also taught structural engineering classes at a local university and mentored prospective engineers. I have found all of these activities to be personally fulfilling and ultimately beneficial to my profession. Had I spent that extra time in the office, I may have earned my employer some extra fee, but the real value of those hours would not have been realized.

Another concern of mine about working long hours is the time lost for unconscious contemplation and creative exploration. Numerous studies have shown that creative breakthroughs require unstructured time for the mind to relax. The new book, Imagine by Jonah Lehrer, cites the science behind creativity and implores readers to take time out. It’s also important for engineers to practice some right-brain thinking by participating in art, music, or other creative hobbies. I’ve also recently dabbled in meditation, and I can confirm that there really is something effective in the act of clearing your mind of thought.

How do you spend time outside of work? Have you ever had an “ah-ha” moment after walking away from a problem? When are you at your most creative? Please share your comments below.

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1 Comment
  • This is a good read, I different perspectives put on working hours. Sometimes we think we are being productive and really we are just putting in the time. Remember, it’s not the hours you put in, it’s what you put in the hours!

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