Why working more than 40 hours a week is a waste of time

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The so-called 'Cult of Overworking' has embedded itself in modern corporate and business culture - but there's a growing body of research that says that the extra hours that we are clocking up are probably pointless and almost definitely damaging.

Even the Wall Street firms where young traders traditionally clocked up 15 hour days trying to make an impression on management are bringing in new rules to curtail extreme working hours by banning office access on weekends and enforcing mandatory numbers of days off per month. 

Research in the US shows that thirty years ago the best-paid workers were much less likely to work long days than lower paid workers, but by 2006 the best paid were twice as likely to work long hours.

Diminishing returns 

The firms who are forcing their employees to work less are doing it for their own health as much as their workers.

Studies show that individual output peaks between hours two and six of the working day and productivity falls off a cliff once you enter the ninth hour.

Through the 30s, 40s and 50s extensive research resulted in a cutting of working weeks down to 40 hours across the United States. The US chamber of commerce published a pamphlet about the productivity gains made by reducing working hours.

There are a number of factors associated with the resurgence of long working hours, including ever-increasing levels of education increasing competition to get into, and to progress in workplaces.

Looking busy

A study from Boston University's Questrom School of Business found that after analysing the work produced by employees, bosses could not tell the difference between workers who spent more hours in the office, and those who only pretended to.

Worryingly, the study also found that bosses punished those who were perceived to be working less, regardless of whether they actually did more or less work than those who embraced an 'ideal worker identity' clocking up extra hours.

As well as achieving less, the extra hours that you work are the ones that really push your system - as stress levels rise and exhaustion sets in, crucial skills for operating in modern working environments such as the ability to communicate with people, to read co-workers, making judgement calls, and managing our own emotions all drop off.

The extra hours that we spend 'on the clock' have to come from somewhere, the hour in the gym skipped, the 40 minutes making a healthy dinner, the date night or jog that gets pushed when you eventually make it home. Poor diets and a lack of exercise also have wide-reaching knock-on effects which are not good for either employers or workers.

Then there's the big eight-hour well of time that is tempting to dip into by skipping sleep. While many people profess to be able to function on five or six hours sleep, only 5 out of every 100 people you think they can operate as normal on reduced sleep actually can.

It's easy to run-up sleep debt, and like monetary debt, you can only extend and pretend for so long before you have to pay-up. Firms with longer working hours experience higher levels of absenteeism. 

If you are the employer you also have to be conscious of overworking people and creating an oppressive working culture and sending your employees to the nearest pub after work to vent about their unhappy working life (an international study which involved 330,000 workers in 14 states found that there is a correlation between working more than 48 hours per week and alcohol abuse). Overworking has also been shown to result in higher staff turnover.

Be smarter

The march of technology has failed to result in the increase in leisure time that utopianists envisaged, but there are companies who are putting a focus on working smarter, rather than longer.

One example of this is the rise of companies offering 'unlimited holidays' - Netflix, LinkedIn, Evernote and some Microsoft divisions have gone down this route.

When social media mogul Gary Vaynerchuk started offering unlimited holidays he noticed an interesting trend. It didn't result in half-empty offices, instead, chunks of staff, particularly younger workers, took no holidays. This resulted in him imposing a mandatory three weeks off per year.

This offers an interesting insight into the phenomenon of overworking, it's not always due to top-down pressure, it's often the choice of the employee who gains a sense of pride and importance by 'grinding out' 50 hour weeks.

Workers have to acknowledge their role in the perpetuation of this culture. For your own good, and the good of the business that you work for, it's probably a good idea to step away from your workspace when the clock hits 5:05 today.

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