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Does working long hours mean that people are productive? Research says “No!” as workers burn out, can lose their focus, and may take longer to do work. Managers who impose mandatory overtime, especially for extended periods, risk burning out workers and tanking productivity.

Maintaining work-life balance is now the mantra of many modern workers. The pandemic taught people that life is short and certainly too short to spend all the time working. Yet, those who have returned to the office may have gotten back into the pattern of working extra hours, while many who work at home never turn off their job, even if they alter their schedule to manage family obligations. However, working long hours and productivity do not always go hand in hand.

The Survey Says: Productivity Drops After Working Long Hours

Recent surveys conducted by Slack show that overworking reduces productivity and disrupts the work-life balance. Their Workplace Lab queried 10,000 desk-based workers, which resulted in these findings:

  • Those pressured to log in after hours were twice as likely to feel resentful, stressed, and burned out, resulting in less productivity.
  • Desk workers reported a “goldilocks zone” of 4 hours that were prime for focused work.
  • Two hours of meetings is the limit before people feel overburdened.
  • Over 50% of desk workers take no breaks during the workday.
  • Productivity falls for 75% of employees working from 3-6 pm.
  • However, those who wanted the overtime or to work more on Monday because they needed to take off early on Wednesday did not report the same effects.

The results are a response to companies who called workers back to the office while telling them to tighten their belts and put in more hours since they are short-staffed, 

Work-life balance suffers after working long hours

As Christina Janzer, senior vice president of research and analytics and the head of Slack’s Workforce Lab, notes in an article in Forbes. “The conventional wisdom for productivity has always been if you want to produce more, just work more. This is our opportunity to myth-bust. More hours don’t necessarily mean better productivity.”

What Happens When Fatigue Sets in

Research shows what happens when employees work too much.

  • Decreased ability to focus and concentrate
  • Burnout and fatigue
  • Increased stress and health issues
  • Lessened creativity and innovation
Life's a blur after working long hours

A study from Stanford University found that productivity declined after 50 hours per week. After 55 hours, it drops sharply. Someone who puts in 70 hours does little that is productive in the last 15 hours. Ongoing periods of long hours lead to absenteeism and employee turnover.

Other scholars argue that even 40 hours per week is too much as people can’t sustain their energy for eight hours a day. A study from the Wisconsin School of Business found that employees might spend up to 2.5 hours per day “cyberloafing” as they surf the internet, view social media, and shop. Companies may have policies in force to limit non-work-related internet usage, but workers need a break during the day.

study in Iceland found that government workers whose work week was reduced from 40 hours to 35 or 36 hours showed the same or better productivity. Accounting department employees processed 6.5% more invoices, while the police investigators closed the same number of cases. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) finds that those who work more than 55 hours a week have a 35% higher risk of a stroke and a 17% higher risk of dying from heart disease. In 2015, 745,000 died from stroke and ischemic heart disease – a 29% increase since 2000. The world-wise statistics show the highest death rates from overwork were among males 60-79 who worked over 55 hours a week between the ages of 45-74.

How Employers Lose Out When Employees Overwork

Employers may think they benefit from workers who put in more time, but they do not always get the value they anticipate/

  • Work quality diminishes, especially after ongoing weeks of excessive hours
  • Absenteeism and presentism increase, so employees either miss work or show up physically but not mentally
  • High turnover rates when overwork makes employees feel disengaged
  • Security risks when employees explore unsafe internet sites or download potentially virus-laden programs when cyberloafing.
Working long hours leads to lack of focus

Choice Mutes Some Effects Of Overwork

The Slack study also confirmed what many students of modern workplace dynamics have found. When employees have a choice about whether they work or not, they are more likely to pitch in without suffering ill effects. Most likely, what motivates them to work provides them with a coping mechanism. They may also manage their time better.

Although incentives like money, commitment to a project, a drive for success, etc., can make people work multiple shifts or long hours, bodies and minds eventually feel fatigued. Ken Matos, senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute think tank, points out in an article on, “The simple reality is that work, both mental and physical, results in fatigue that limits the cognitive and bodily resources people have to put towards their work.”

Working too many hours may be the fault of managers, but workers can take on too much or lack the discipline or time-management skills to complete non-emergency tasks during regular work hours. Some people feel self-important when they work later or on weekends.

What Can Businesses Do To Prevent The Effects Of Overwork

The World Trade Organization proposes laws to ban mandatory overtime, limit the number of hours to no more than 55, and offer flexible working times. 

Short of that, businesses that need things done must face the reality that that right demanding long hours from workers, especially over a long period, may produce different results than they want. What can businesses do to achieve their goals without stressing workers?

The obvious answer is to hire more workers for some jobs. Hiring new people is costly, especially when the need for more help might be temporary or seasonal. Some companies hire workers from agencies or as part-timers for a few months.

Often, companies need to assess their work processes to see if there is a more efficient way to do things that would streamline the average worker’s day and help workers learn about and implement time management strategies. Encouraging workers to block off time for certain tasks, set timers to help employees focus on what they are doing, and only check email at specific times can help keep things on track.

Promoting efficient time management

Even Slack is experimenting with ways to implement productivity tools and lessen stress. For example, workers on Christine Janzer’s team have halved the usual time allotted to meetings to see how much the agenda really takes and temporarily paused some meetings to evaluate which are necessary and which aren’t. 

At a time when workers are lobbying for hybrid and remote work and shorter work weeks, companies should consider the benefits of re-evaluating work processes and determine better ways of measuring productivity. They may find that work can be well done in less time by a more focused, less stressed workforce.

Carol Farrish

Carol is a lifelong writer and marketing specialist who has worked remotely for over 15 years. She started doing administrative projects and customer service work part-time, but became 100% remote when her last brick-and-mortar job ended. Not only has working at home been flexible and interesting, but it has also exposed her to wonderful coworkers.

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