Home Best Practices “No person can get very far in this life on a 40-hour week.”

“No person can get very far in this life on a 40-hour week.”

Working more hours does not make us more productive.  That seems counter-intuitive, but it’s true.  This was demonstrated by many studies conducted from the early 1900s to the 1950s.  In fact, Henry Ford, who was an early adopter of working fewer hours, reduced the work day in his plants from 10 hours to eight, and the work week from six days to five.  Twelve years of experiments had proven conclusively to him that this reduced schedule would increase total worker output while reducing production costs (by eliminating costly errors and accidents).  And so, the 40-hour week became the universal standard until the 1970s when companies began requiring their employees to work longer hours.  Apparently, those companies either didn’t know about, or didn’t believe, the productivity studies done earlier in the century.  According to a poll conducted by Gallup in 2014, 4 of 10 U.S. workers claim to work over 50 hours per week, while 2 in 10 say they work in excess of 60 hours.  To learn why long hours are a bad idea, not only for workers, but also for the companies that employ them, please continue reading below.

“No person can get very far in this life on a 40-hour week.”   ~ J.W. Marriott, Marriott Hotels

Apparently ol’ J.W. didn’t embrace the concept of work/life balance.  Most experts agree that the optimal work week (that is, the number of hours we can work before fatigue starts to impact our performance) is 40 hours.  According to a Stanford University study, output falls off dramatically at 50 hours, and goes into free fall at 55 hours.  This is particularly bad news for companies whose employees are entitled to overtime.  After 40 hours, those employees are paid time-and-a-half their regular hourly rate, yet due to the onset of fatigue, they are producing less.  So the company is paying more for less . . . a double whammy.

Studies do show that we can increase hours and output, but only in short bursts.  If there’s a crisis of some kind and we need to work some extra hours to get through it, we can do that, but when long hours become the norm rather than the exception, that’s when we see the cost/benefit of long hours start to get out of whack.

Commercial truck drivers are required, by law, to make specified rest stops.  The FAA dictates how many hours commercial pilots can fly within a specified period of time.  So where public safety is concerned, there is clear recognition that there are limits on how long people can perform at optimal levels.  But in many businesses, there seems to be this idea that if we increase hours by 25%, say from 40 hours to 50, we’ll get 25% more output, and that’s simply not true.  The truth is, whether you’re a professional athlete, a factory worker, or a customer service rep,  you don’t perform as well when you’re tired as you do when you’re not tired.  Unfortunately, in many company cultures, a long work week is seen as a rite of passage that demonstrates an employee’s loyalty and commitment to the organization.  “The simple reality is that work, both mental and physical, results in fatigue that limits the cognitive and bodily resources people have to put towards their work,” said Ken Matos, senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute think tank.  “When they are not thinking clearly or moving as quickly or precisely, they must work more slowly to maintain quality and safety requirements.”

A long work week may be the result of misguided company policies, but it may also be driven by so-called “work martyrs.”  A 2015 article in the Harvard Business Review entitled, “The Research is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies,” suggests people may inflict long hours on themselves due to “a mix of inner drivers, like ambition, machismo, greed, anxiety, guilt, enjoyment, pride, the pull of short-term rewards, a desire to prove we’re important, or an overdeveloped sense of duty.”  In such cases, the company will need to find ways to convince the employee that working heroic hours is not productive, not in his or her best interest, and not in the best interest of the company.

Technology also plays a role in the extended work week.  According to a Pew survey, 35% of all workers say their working hours have increased due to text messages, emails, and cell phones.  When limited to office workers only, that number rises to 47%.  In other words, people are telling us that they may be off the clock, but they’re never off duty . . . they’re always within reach of their employer.

But regardless of the source . . . company policies, personal preference, or technology . . . anything that consistently drives work weeks to levels above 40 hours is damaging to the company in terms of:

  • Employee turnover
  • Absenteeism
  • Reduced productivity
  • Re-work caused by preventable errors
  • Lost time accidents

and is damaging to the employee in terms of:

  • Stress
  • Exhaustion
  • Health issues stemming from sleep deprivation
  • Inadequate family/personal time

As compared to Mr. Marriott’s take on the 40-hour work week, I prefer that of William J.H. Boetcker (American clergyman, public speaker, and thought leader) who said, “If your business keeps you so busy that you have no time for anything else, there must be something wrong, either with you or your business.”


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