Work Beyond 40 Hours? Think Again About Overwork

August 21, 20149:00 am1808 views

Many entrepreneurs, executives and consultants (especially management consultants) hold long hours to be a form of prestige. A badge of honour so to speak. Starting a business, building a company, gaining traction and scaling upwards is difficult and extremely challenging. Those late nights do indicate a degree of determination, work ethic and discipline – but are they really productive, effective, or even necessary?

Not necessarily. Many studies, from various sources, indicates that consistently clocking more than the standard 40 hours per week renders staff unproductive, overworked and fatigued in the long run. There’s a direct association with burnout and high attrition rates. Most workers, whether in the US or Singapore, typically put in at least 55 hours a week or more.

Sara Robinson of Salon wrote a lengthy, but fascinating, article tracing the origins of the 40-hour week and it’s downfall. The essential wisdom from her article was that working long hours for long periods is counterproductive, both to a business and its human capital. She wrote:

“The most essential thing to know about the 40-hour work-week is that, while it was the unions that pushed it, business leaders ultimately went along with it because their own data convinced them this was a solid, hard-nosed business decision….”

Evan Robinson, a software engineer with an interest in programmer productivity, summarised this history in a white paper he authored for the International Game Developers’ Association in 2005. The paper contains links to studies conducted by businesses, universities, industry associations and the military that supported 20th Century leaders as they embraced the short week.

From the 1930s to the 1950s, studies were conducted by these various organisations. By the 1960s, the benefits of a 40-hour week were accepted almost beyond question in corporate America. What these studies showed was that industrial workers have eight good, reliable hours a day in them. On average, no gains are derived out of a 10-hour day than out of an eight-hour day.


However working overtime isn’t always a bad idea. Research by the Business Roundtable in the 1980s found short-term gains could be generated by going to 60- or 70-hour weeks briefly; for example, pushing extra hard for a few weeks to meet critical production deadline. But increasing a teams office hours by 50 percent (from 40 to 60 hours) doesn’t result in 50 percent more output. It’s something closer to 25-30 percent more work in 50 percent more time.”

The takeaway here is to stop staying at the office too late. However returning home on time can be more difficult psychologically than is conventionally imagined.

The author Laura Vanderkam has pointed out, for many of us, there’s actually a pretty strong correlation between how busy we are and how important we feel. Living in a competitive society, lamenting overwork and sleep deprivation served the function of affirming and reinforcing the individuals ego and self-worth – even if it requires workweek inflation.

Long hours, in other words, are more often about proving something to ourselves than actually getting proper work done. In the end, are the 55+ hour weeks really productive and sustainable? There is a cost to the individual and to the business from this action. For the individual, the cost lies in relationships, health and lifestyle. For businesses, the cost lies in wasted hours, conservancy fees, absences and higher attrition.

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