08/14/2013 10:15 am ET Updated Oct 14, 2013

Long Hours (Do Not) Equal Success

A key assumption that still reigns supreme in the modern world is that long hours equal success. This is particularly evident in some industries where leaving work on time is actually considered leaving work early.

Most of us have felt it: the shame of leaving on time. The paranoia that everyone is now thinking "Oh look at her, she's not good at her job, she doesn't care enough, she doesn't work hard" and so on. And we are guilty of it too: thinking that same thing we are so afraid of when we see someone else leave on time.

How come no one ever thinks along the lines of, "Great, I am leaving on time, I have been efficient and productive today! And everyone else knows it since they only stay late when they don't manage to finish all their tasks for the day." It does seem more logical, doesn't it?

I have heard of at least one person working in advertising that is not fazed by any of this. His words have become quoted almost on a daily basis, becoming a bit of an urban legend within the agency. One average Wednesday, while his whole department still sat working away and not showing any sign that they were about to leave, he suddenly exclaimed:

"Guys it's ten past six! What the hell are we still doing here?"

This statement should be printed on the walls of those companies where the culture dictates working long hours and condemns or even outcasts those who dare to behave differently. Imagine someone saying this, even in jest, in a company with such culture.

According to an article in the New York Times, a study of 400 employees shows that spending more hours at work can lead to fewer hours of sleep which eventually has a negative effect on one's performance. Similarly, sleep deprivation has considerable financial effects on the economy. So how can we change people's behavior and get them to do what is good for them?

Firstly, we should stop assuming that humans are rational and that they will always or even most of the time act in their best interest. We are often shortsighted and our view of the future cannot be detached from our view of the present. While it is easy to see the big picture in terms of that pay rise or promotion because they are tangible, we cannot see the effects that working too hard will have on our health because "there's no way it will happen to me, I am tougher than that".

Secondly, if it has to be tangible -- let's talk numbers. How much does lost productivity cost? How much is gained in terms of productivity from holidays, more sleep and less stress? What are the costs of overloading one employee with work versus employing another one?

And last but not least -- award people for being focused and efficient within their role. A friend of mine has just returned to work after a serious health scare. He only works 4-5 hours per day. I asked him what his bosses say about this.

"They don't give a shit," he said. "I've won new business, I get everything done in the time that I'm at work and if I can't, well, then I shouldn't be there."

P.S. I realize that we don't live in a perfect world and that in most countries and a lot of companies people have no choice but to work hard and sleep little. But in those countries and companies where this conversation about work/life balance and productivity is encouraged, the issues I mentioned above should be considered.