The long hours delusion: why less is more for today’s executive

“The man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly, not only preserves his health the longest, but in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of works.” Adam Smith.

Nov 17, 2016
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Adam Smith understood the problem two centuries ago. More recent research confirms that working long hours is counter-productive. So why, asks David Bolchover, do executives still do it and how can firms stop it.

We often read about the intimidating schedules of corporate titans: 5am starts, action-packed days, VIP dinners, late-night emails. They set a standard for executives down the ranks, who then associate long hours with prodigious levels of energy, stamina and, most importantly, productivity. Technology, social media and globalised markets have only fuelled this ‘always-on’ culture. Yet an increasing body of research shows that these impressions are misplaced.

John Pencavel, Professor of Economics at Stanford University, examined data from a British government study into the relationship between hours worked and output in a World War I munitions factory. He discovered that weekly hours worked were directly proportional to output until the 50-hour mark. Productivity then declined sharply, and after 55 hours work was effectively useless. Unlike the routine tasks of munitions factory workers, today’s senior executives expend mental effort which is even more tiring, and suggests they would be even less productive.

Long hours are not only senseless, they can actually be harmful. Charles Czeisler, Professor of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, concluded that four to five hours’ sleep a night for just four days induces cognitive impairment comparable to legal drunkenness. ‘We would never say: “This person is a great worker! He’s drunk all the time!” yet we continue to celebrate people who sacrifice sleep,’ says Professor Czeisler. ‘The analogy to drunkenness is real because, like a drunk, a person who is sleep deprived has no idea how functionally impaired he or she truly is.’

The problem might not be quite as worrying as it seems. That’s because executives are almost certainly exaggerating their hours. Research from the US Monthly Labor Review suggests that employees tend to overestimate their working hours by 5-10 percent compared with what they write in their time diaries. In fact, the more hours people work, the more they inflate those hours to others. US executives who claimed to put in 65-75 hours per week overestimated by a staggering 20 hours. But even if they are not overdoing it (and some 30 percent of US managers work more than 45 hours a week) they are perpetuating a culture of inefficiency and dishonesty. It may even be a sign of job dissatisfaction.

Getting into the work flow

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a 10-year McKinsey study found that when executives were in what Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a ‘state of flow’, i.e. fully immersed with energised focus, they were five times more productive. In other words, you could finish a project by Monday evening that a less engaged colleague would take the whole week to complete. Even a 20 percent increase in ‘flow’ would double workforce productivity. Clearly, there is an inverse relationship to exploit: more focus for fewer hours.

Ideally, firms would be able to determine the optimal length of a working day (irrespective of when those hours need to be worked). However, except for professions that charge by the hour, measuring performance in the knowledge economy is notoriously difficult (and presumably why Professor Pencavel investigated a factory, not an office). A marketing or public relations executive, for example, may appear to work hard and be of great value to the company. But no-one can be sure if this impression is rooted in reality, or is a product of a carefully constructed personal image. What is clear is that too many professional personas are bound up in the idea of starting early and working late.

At heart, this is a cultural rather than a measurement issue. And changing working culture starts with enforcement. German companies, keen to retain a productivity advantage, are already experimenting with new ideas. A Daimler scheme automatically deletes emails sent to staff on holiday. Volkswagen turns off email outside of working hours. With senior leadership setting the right example, a new generation—unencumbered by yesterday’s deeply-embedded ‘long-hours’ culture—may be persuaded of its harmful effects and try a more productive way of working.

How managers can end the long-hours culture

  • Familiarise yourself with the research
  • Explain the harmful effects of long hours to staff
  • Lead by example
  • Experiment with new ‘no-work’ rules
  • Redefine work roles to maximise ‘flow’
  • Restructure the working day to match the needs of the business
  • Focus efforts on younger executives

David Bolchover

Journalist, author

David Bolchover is an award-winning business journalist and author of three books on management and the workplace.