Work Longer, Work Dumber: The Case Against Long Hours

By Robin Cangie | Small Business

Here’s a crazy idea – tonight, when 5 o’clock rolls around, go home. Leave your laptop at the office. Turn off your phone. Don’t check your work email. In fact, don’t do anything work-related until 9:00AM the next morning. Repeat for a full week, if you dare.

I can sense your panic slowly rising as you read this, and I know what you’re thinking — no f*ing way. What would my boss think? What would my peers think? I have too much to do!

But not so very long ago, a 40-hour work week wouldn’t have seemed crazy at all. It would have been common sense. What changed?

A History of the Modern Work Week

In a fascinating piece for Salon, Sara Robinson details the history of the 40-hour work week, its demise over the last 30 years, and some very compelling reasons for bringing it back. Robinson writes:

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.

Unions started fighting for the short week in both the UK and US in the early 19th century. By the latter part of the century, it was becoming the norm in an increasing number of industries. And a weird thing happened: over and over — across many business sectors in many countries — business owners discovered that when they gave into the union and cut the hours, their businesses became significantly more productive and profitable.

Though the 40-hour week began as a way to maximize industrial workers’ output, the benefits apply to knowledge workers, too. In fact, Robinson argues that knowledge workers have closer to five or six productive hours in them per day, which amounts to 25-30 hours per week. The balance is most likely spent in meetings, checking emails, and gabbing with co-workers (look at your own workday patterns, and you probably know in your heart that it’s true).

Double Hours (Does Not) = Double Output

That’s not to say that overtime isn’t useful in specific, short-term instances. Brief bursts of longer hours — for example, to launch a new product or website — do lead to greater output, but only for a few weeks at a time. Even then, you won’t get the same hour-for-hour output from hour 12 that you did from hour 2. According to Robinson:

The Business Roundtable study found that after just eight 60-hour weeks, the fall-off in productivity is so marked that the average team would have actually gotten just as much done and been better off if they’d just stuck to a 40-hour week all along. And at 70- or 80-hour weeks, the fall-off happens even faster: at 80 hours, the break-even point is reached in just three weeks.

As much as we’d like to think otherwise, we aren’t machines, and we have limits. Longer hours may help you get more done for awhile, but ultimately they lead to diminishing returns, exhaustion, and burnout.

Work Longer, Work Dumber

Our best work happens when we’re well-rested and refreshed, not after a string of 12-hour days and weekends spent tethered to our phones. Most of us already know this. So why does the culture of long hours continue?

The reasons are complex, and they range from economic insecurity to our own fragile egos. But I think there’s a larger reason that our other insecurities merely feed, and that is the persistent and misguided belief that more face-time equals more dedication at work.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever stayed an extra hour at the office after the day’s work has been completed, fiddling with emails and Facebook, afraid that an early or even an on-time departure will brand you a slacker in the eyes of your boss and your peers. Oh, the irony…

The good news is that unlike the economy and other people’s egos, the face-time myth is completely within our power to change. We can start by giving ourselves, our peers, and our direct reports the permission to work a reasonable schedule. Long hours are a recipe for working dumber, not smarter. They’re bad for you, and they’re bad for business. And if your boss doesn’t agree, you have my permission to hit them (gently) over the head with the hard data that proves otherwise.

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