In the United States we think about the typical work week as being 40 hours long, but Americans are actually working 47 hours a week on average. Worse than that, 4 out of every 10 Americans say they work more than 50 hours a week, and 2 out of 10 Americans say they work more than 60 hours a week.
Even if we only spend 40 hours a week in the office, mobile devices and employer provided laptops mean we're often logging on to do more work once we arrive at home. When our phones buzz with the sound of a new email, it's hard for us to resist checking our inbox and then shooting off a reply no matter what time it is.
Is all of this after-hours work really helping to improve the bottom line at our companies though? Does it make us more valuable to our employers, or does it simply make us more tired?
The research says it just makes us more tired.
Companies like KPMG, Basecamp and almost every organization in Sweden (including Toyota) are making moves to reduce employee work hours. Yes you read that right!
Why? Let's dive into the reasons companies are telling employees to work less!
1. Working Too Much Leads to Health Issues
The biggest concern that comes along with working long hours is a decrease in physical health.
Marianna Virtanen, a researcher at the Finnish Institute of Occupational health, found that there are clear associations between being overworked and dealing with impaired sleep and depressive symptoms. Similar studies show a correlation between overworking and Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
When we're overworked we're more likely to sleep less, eat worse and skip exercise leading to a whole host of health issues. These issues directly and negatively affect employers because they lead to absenteeism (taking sick days), high turnover rate (quitting) and rising health insurance costs.
Essentially, in the long run employers get more out of their staff if they let them work 6 hours instead of 8 because they'll then employees take less full days off due to feeling ill.
2. Working Longer Hours Doesn't Result in Increased Efficiency
The Parkinson's Law states that "work expands to fill the time available for its completion." That means if you give yourself a 8 hours to complete a 2 hour task you'll end up taking all 8 hours to finish the work.
Does filling 8 hours with 2 hours worth of work make employees more productive? Definitely not. It just means we're being less efficient.
On the flip side, "If you are empowered to hunker down and work for six hours and then leave, and this is supported by your employer, inevitably you will maximize the time you have available so that you can leave and get on with different activities in your life."
By having more time to spend doing activities outside of work that you enjoy, your quality of life improves and you're more excited to do well at work because you're happier and well rested. In fact, a study out of the University of Warwick confirmed that "happiness led to a 12% spike in productivity, while unhappy workers provided 10% less productive."
Working less hours really does lead to more productivity!
3. Working to the Point of Exhaustion Leads to Errors
Research has shown that working when we're overtired leads to errors. From a management and leadership perspective, working when we're feeling exhausted leads to misreading physical cues such as facial expressions and body movements. It also leads to a mismanagement of our own emotional reactions, perhaps leading to unprofessional outbursts.
Beyond that, research shows that only 1-3% of the population can survive on five to six hours of sleep per night. Being tired also makes us much more prone to making errors. These errors can definitely impact the bottom line for our companies and also land us in hot water depending on how big the error is.
This concept of overwork leading to costly errors dates back to the 19th century. Factory owners learned to limit workdays to 8 hours so that they could reduce expensive mistakes and accidents that frequently occurred when employees were made to work 9, 10 or even more hours per day.
According to an article in Salon, "In 1914, emboldened by a dozen years of in-house research, Henry Ford famously took the radical step of doubling his workers' pay, and cut shifts in Ford plants from nine hours to eight."
Ford was initially bitterly criticized for this move, but over the next five years his competitors adopted the same model after seeing his production soar. It was at this time that many companies saw "if you wanted to keep your workers bright, healthy, productive, safe and efficient over a sustained stretch of time, you kept them to no more than 40 hours a week and eight hours a day."
By reducing hours companies saw a decrease in worker disability, less damaged equipment, reduced lawsuits and happier shareholders.
A century later and all of the lessons from the 1914s seem to have been forgotten, but companies and employees would do well to learn from the past.
The Bottom Line
Employees become less efficient when they feel overworked. Stress and exhaustion lead to medical concerns, decreased efficiency and costly errors.
The secret to happy, productive and efficient employees? Less work hours!