According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, one in six Australian employees works 49 hours or more each week. It is common belief that working late nights and weekends gets you noticed when you’re first starting out in your field, and even once we’re established we often feel pressured to put in extra hours in order to get more done. However, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests working long hours makes us less productive. In fact, working 30 hours per week yields the best results, and productivity falls sharply after 50 hours per week. If you want to accomplish more at work, late nights and weekends are not the answer.
We’ve known for quite some time that working longer hours doesn’t mean getting more done. In the 1990s, Ford Motor Company conducted a series of studies that showed an additional 20 hours added to a 40 hour work week eventually resulted in negative productivity. The International Labour Organization confirmed this in a 2011 synthesis paper, and also found that working longer hours results in lower-quality output. As it turns out, fewer hours in the office - and predictable, scheduled time off - is what makes us more productive.
The main reason overwork kills our productivity is that fatigue sets in after we consistently work long hours. Symptoms of fatigue include tiredness, poor concentration, irritability, and susceptibility to illness. Working late interferes with our ability to get enough sleep, and sleep deprivation makes it difficult for the brain to function. In fact, if you sleep four hours each night for four or five days, you will develop the same level of cognitive impairment as if you’d been awake for 24 hours, or if you were legally drunk. As you can imagine, this leads to more accidents and injuries, and more mistakes for those of us who don’t work physically taxing jobs. Our decision-making skills also plummet when we’re tired. This is especially concerning for senior-level employees, who often need to make complex decisions and negotiate risk. We also tend to misread the facial expressions of those around us, and are more likely to lash out at perceived slights.
Extended work hours have also been found to cause more stress, and increase the risk of heart disease by 67%. Spending long periods of time at your desk can cause musculoskeletal damage due to sustained awkward postures and can lead to obesity as well. Those who work upwards of 55 hours per week also have poor short-term memory and recall skills than those who work 41 hours or fewer. Over a prolonged period of time, working long hours can cause brain damage or dementia. Overwork is also associated with depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, and even premature mortality. Anyone who says “hard work won’t kill you” should reconsider their words.
Of course, we’re not arguing that you should leave the office at the same time every day, even if a crisis arrives. We also know that managers tend to view employees more positively when they work 80 hours per week, even though they are unable to distinguish their work from that of employees who work shorter hours. Research seems to suggest that working one or two 60 hour weeks on occasion is not necessarily harmful to your health or productivity, so use your judgement and put in extra time when it’s absolutely necessary. Most of the time, though, you’re better off ditching the long hours and spending time with family and friends.