The Inefficiency of Long Hours

office night

(Photo: Pithawat Vachiramon)

Writing for The New Yorker, James Surowiecki explores the downside of working long hours:

The perplexing thing about the cult of overwork is that, as we’ve known for a while, long hours diminish both productivity and quality. Among industrial workers, overtime raises the rate of mistakes and safety mishaps; likewise, for knowledge workers fatigue and sleep-deprivation make it hard to perform at a high cognitive level. As [David] Solomon put it, past a certain point overworked people become “less efficient and less effective.” And the effects are cumulative. The bankers [Alexandra] Michel studied started to break down in their fourth year on the job. They suffered from depression, anxiety, and immune-system problems, and performance reviews showed that their creativity and judgment declined.

If the benefits of working fewer hours are this clear, why has it been so hard for businesses to embrace the idea? Simple economics certainly plays a role: in some cases, such as law firms that bill by the hour, the system can reward you for working longer, not smarter. And even if a person pulling all-nighters is less productive than a well-rested substitute would be, it’s still cheaper to pay one person to work a hundred hours a week than two people to work fifty hours apiece. (In the case of medicine, residents work long hours not just because it’s good training but also because they’re a cheap source of labor.) On top of this, the productivity of most knowledge workers is much harder to quantify than that of, say, an assembly-line worker. So, as Bob Pozen, a former president of Fidelity Management and the author of “Extreme Productivity,” a book on slashing work hours, told me, “Time becomes an easy metric to measure how productive someone is, even though it doesn’t have any necessary connection to what they achieve.”

While several investment banks have been making an effort to curtail working hours, Surowiecki points out that changing expectations and norms will be necessary for a true culture change.  One researcher, for example, told Surowiecki of a “consulting firm that mandated that people stay out of the office on weekends, only to discover that they were working secretly from home. In a culture that venerates overwork, people internalize crazy hours as the norm.”

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  1. Jeff L says:

    We need a narrative that allows people to admit that they were mistaken about the benefits of working long hours. Something like, but better than, associating long hours with a college undergrad cramming for a test. “Now that we’re adults, we recognize that isn’t effective. No reason to act like an immature college student.”

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    • Alex in Chicago says:

      Well, I think that is underselling college students. Its pretty rational to cram for many college tests considering how a significant portion of them are tests on irrelevant subject matter that you don’t want cluttering your brain for more than a few hours/days anyways.

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  2. Shane L says:

    I used to think that in my college days about some extremely driven students who spent a large amount of time in the library. I felt the extra hours might not contribute much since breaks, exercise, fresh air and socialising can be rejuvenating. I sometimes saw students in the library, but fast asleep over their books! Maybe it would be healthier to get a good night’s sleep and take breaks during the day than to remain studying to exhaustion in the library.

    Where I work now we are forbidden from putting in excessive hours: any overtime we work is simply give back to us as days off. I for one do not “work secretly from home”.

    Perhaps I’m just trying to justify my relative sloth, mind!

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  3. steve cebalt says:

    The post provides answers to many of the questions it poses: Incentives. Because our corporate incentives (wrongly) bundle healthcare, vacation, sick pay, vacation benefits, etc., with salary, it is far cheaper to pay one person to work longer hours than to pay two people with all that bundled-benefit overhead cost. Overhead of one worker is a fixed cost that is leveraged and becomes cheaper with each hour the individual works — on paper, that is. If all those overhead costs were unbundled and people were paid properly (like contractors) for their actual hours worked and then they bought their own health insurance, paid for their free time, etc., these incentives would be better aligned and productivity would likewise align itself.

    As for the cultural issue, many people LIKE to work long hours, as indicated by people banned from the office on weekends only to be working “secretly from home” as the post says. Work is the perfect form of escape. Nothing bad (emotionally) ever happens when you’re working. You can escape your dysfunctional family and no one can really criticize you much. And it makes you feel important. It is a form of addiction that is healthier than many. And you don’t wake up hungover. O wait, that’s just me. :)

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    • Mark Bayer says:

      I wonder if maybe the “escape from the dysfunctional family” idea suggests another effect. There may be a feedback loop there – family dysfunction is maintained and perhaps strengthened by the “escape to the office” of one or more members of the family. It’s true you can’t experience the dysfunction firsthand while you’re burning the midnight oil in the office, but that’s also probably the time during which your dissatisfied significant other is looking for somebody to talk to. And your kids are looking for a role model and for somebody to notice or pay attention to them. Just a theory.

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  4. Ben Doty says:

    The “time becomes an easy metric” quote is dead on. That was my first thought before reading the article. When it’s difficult to measure output, managers naturally tend to use what they can measure.

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  5. Sam says:

    It is wise to distinguish between the knowledge workers and factory workers. I think it can be said that for most knowledge workers there is an added incentive that the average factory/industrial worker does not get. And that is, most knowledge workers receive a payoff from developing and advancing themselves and their career. Whereas a lot of the industrial workers go to work strictly for a pay check and (maybe) health benefits. A good example would be a data analyst who works 2 extra hours for the chance at making some discovery that causes them to stand out, versus a factory worker who works 2 extra hours just to hit the daily production goal. Also, the growth incentives for a knowledge worker are often great than that of the average factory/industrial worker.

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  6. James says:

    The flip side of this is that (at least for me) it’s often more effective to put in stretches of long hours on a particular task, then take an equivalent amount of down time. When I’m “in the zone”, I would waste a lot of time winding down from the intense phase, then getting going again the next day. So I may put in a few 12-16 hour days, then take a few days off.

    And of course for those of you who don’t work from home, there’s the overhead of commuting…

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  7. Guy says:

    one thing that is missed is the nexus of kmowledge amongst white collar workers. You want decisions made by the person who is on top of your case, not an intern. These economies of scale and scope within an individual would also explain why part time staff get paid badly and firms are ruluctant to take on new starters.

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  8. Kita says:

    This kind of thing alway makes me think of a saying I use at my work, “What behaviour are we rewarding?” Long hourse are easily noticed by managers, as these people become more likely to get promoted, it creates an environment of “this is what is takes to be successful here”. Meaning that a) those here (that got promoted) are more likely to in turn see this as a valid metric, while b) others who otherwise would not consider overwork either leave, or start to engage in it as a nessissity for success.

    I don’t think it’s necessarily that (all) people work from home because they “like it” as Steve Cebalt suggested – I think it is more likely that the underlying culture driving the behaviour wasn’t actally addressed. Cultural change takes time to change, and significant and visible buy-in from all levels of management. It’s not so simple to “policy it away”. (Though I’ve seen many organisations try).

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