Long work hours are often an uncomfortable topic of discussion for many leaders, especially for those leaders who cut their teeth in the 80’s ‘Men of Steel’ 70 hour work-week culture. Leaders from this generation often struggle to relate to employees who protest working long hours and seemingly value a work-life balance over their career advancement, perceiving them as ‘lazy’. Sure, these employees might actually be lazy, or they might be onto something. As organisations are placing a greater emphasis on driving efficiency into everything they do, the question must be asked; is there really anything efficient about working long hours?
Let’s compare two employees. Joe works 12 hours every day and Mike works between 7 and 8 hours per day. Given that both employees produce they exact same output of work, who would you say is the better worker? It is of course obvious that Mike is a far more efficient worker and the better choice of the two. In all honesty though, which one would you most like to have working at your organisation?
Rarely is the answer to this question so simple, as it is likely to be influenced by the workplace culture embedded in your business. Depending on the workplace culture, the thinking regarding Joe will be either “Wow, that Joe really puts in the hours, he is such a team player”, or “What is it about Joe or Joe’s position that means he has to work 12 hours a day to get his job done?”. If an indicator of performance is simply how long someone spends at work, you might want to re-think your performance evaluation procedures.
Culture is driven by leadership and Managers and Executives are often the worst offenders. A recent detailed analysis by the Office of National Statistics in the UK found that full-time managers and senior officials who are contracted to work 38.5 paid hours a week actually worked on average 46.2 hours per week. “Gone are the days of the 40-hour workweek,” said one survey respondent. “My company expects all managers to put in 50 to 60 hours a week as the average”.
How did we get here? Was it really so long ago that the Ford motor company cut working hours from 12-16 hours to 8 hours and dramatically increased productivity, leading to Ford doubling their profit margins within two years?
It may sound hypocritical coming from us here at Coriolis, as Consultants are in no position to judge. Big consulting firms have a notorious reputation of hellishly long working hours. After all, clients pay a premium for consulting services and they like to think they are getting their money’s worth. But what exactly does ‘getting your money’s worth’ mean?
A study of consultants by Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University, determined that managers were unable to tell the difference between consultants who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who worked 40 hours and just pretended to work 80. In that particular study, although consultants who were transparent about working fewer hours were paid less, Reid was unable to find any evidence that those consultants actually accomplished less, or any sign that the overworking consultants accomplished more.
Whilst it’s not exactly a secret that sustained long working hours do not increase overall productivity, the extent to which they can decrease productivity is mind-blowing. In fact, a recent study completed at Stanford University found that the average total output of employees working 60 hour weeks for a period of 2 weeks or more is less than two thirds that of what it was when the employees worked 40 hour weeks.
You don’t have to think too hard about why the outcomes of this study make sense; how many of us have made a silly error or bad judgement call after a few long weeks? Whilst burnout and fatigue are the obvious symptoms of long working hours, the risk of impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease all rise sharply with sustained long work hours. Not only are these horrible things for an employee to suffer, they’re also disastrous for an organisation’s bottom line, evident in high absenteeism, high turnover, and an increase in health insurance costs. It is highly unlikely that any perceived benefits of having a culture of ‘hardworking’ staff can justify these costs.
Now, this is not to say we should never have a long day. The occasional 12 hour day may be the difference between achieving a critical organisational objective or not. The research, however, clearly shows that long hours should not be routine. The key to engaged, productive and loyal employees is flexibility. Leaders need to accept the fact that regardless of the employee’s engagement or performance, there really is a limit to how much can be achieved in a single day, just as employees know that working extra hours may occasionally be required. A culture of long working hours is a culture of diminishing returns and the tired old mantra of ‘there is always more work to be done’ should be retired in favour of an agile, adaptable working environment.
Written by Sam Byrnes, Coriolis Consulting Pty Ltd