Long Hours Lead to Lower Productivity

Research suggests employers that try and stretch workers' hours and squeeze every drop of work out of them may be shooting themselves in the foot in terms of worker output, safety and productivity.

Thursday, February 5, 2015
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If ever there was data to support the importance of work/life balance and helping employees find their ideal mix, you might say this is it.

Research by Stanford University economics professor John Pencavel indicates there's a point of no return, if you will, when long hours and overwork become unproductive and unhealthy, and even have negative effects on your bottom line. So, counter to common thinking, your hardest workers may not be your best workers, not by a long shot.

The study-The Productivity of Working Hours, based on a review of much earlier research undertaken by investigators of the British Health of Munition Workers Committee during the First World War-finds employee output falls sharply after 50 hours of work in a week. After 55 hours, that output is fast becoming nonexistent, to the point that an employee working 70 hours in a week produces absolutely nothing between 55 and 70 hours, according to the research.

"Long weekly hours and long daily hours do not necessarily yield high output," Pencavel writes in his report, "and this implies that, for some employees engaged in certain types of work, their profit-maximizing employer [should] not be indifferent to the length of their working hours over a day or week."

This point has already been made in reports of fixed employment costs, where costs linked to the number of workers employed inclines a firm to extend workers' hours, he notes.

"[But] this paper," Pencavel writes, "has suggested a different reason for an optimizing employer to care about the length of working hours: employees at work for a long time may experience fatigue or stress that not only reduces [their] productivity, but also increases the probability of errors, accidents and sickness that impose costs on the employer.

"Unlike the case of fixed employment costs," he writes, "these concerns over work stress incline the firm not to extend the work hours of employees, but to curtail them. ... This is certainly not a new argument, but it seems to have been neglected in contemporary models of labor markets. It implies that restrictions on working hours-those imposed by statute or those induced by setting penalty rates of pay for hours worked beyond a threshold, or those embodied in collective-bargaining agreements-may be viewed, not as damaging restraints on management, but as an enlightened form of improving workplace efficiency and welfare."

Overwork isn't necessarily confined to the office either. A recent study by New York-based WorkplaceTrends and Los Angeles-based CareerArc, titled 2015 Workplace Flexibility Study, shows 65 percent of 1,087 professionals surveyed say their managers expect them to be reachable outside the office and 64 percent of 116 HR professionals surveyed say they expect their employees to be reachable outside of work, on their personal time.

"Technology has expanded the 9-to-5 workday into the 24/7 workday, which has made it extremely difficult for employees to have personal time," says Dan Schawbel, founder of WorkplaceTrends. "In the future, every company will have a flexibility program and those that don't will lose the battle for top talent."  

Changing the mind-sets of many employers and turning this employee "squeeze" into employee "ease," though, will take time and some hard, focused work on the parts of employers, experts say. For one, cutting hours to raise productivity goes against the grain of a longtime trend. As Claire Caruso, research-health scientist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, notes in a paper she co-authored with members of the National Occupational Research Agenda Long Work Hours Team, the share of workers working long hours has increased substantially over the last three decades. trend and the use of schedules with extended shifts have raised concerns about the risk to health and safety "if working hours become excessive," her report states.

"For example," it states, "long hours have been associated with motor-vehicle crashes, medical errors and myocardial infarction. Poor management of working hours could also carry a substantial human and economic burden from lost productivity, job-related injuries, healthcare costs and greater employee turnover as reported for round-the-clock operations."

While it's difficult to precisely measure the impact of long hours in all these factors, "there's no question there's a point when you become unproductive," says Carol Sladek, partner and work/life consulting leader with Chicago-based Aon Hewitt. That's something she sees in practice and tells her clients fairly regularly, she says.

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Also indisputable, Sladek says, "is the fact that there is a definite payoff to the employer that encourages its employees to refocus on the life part" of the work/life balance.

"Those employees," she says, "are far more engaged, far more devoted." And here's the Catch 22: They also "end up working harder and becoming more committed," she adds.

The key to making the corporate-culture change and giving employees more freedom to live their lives does not come down to rhetoric and small programmable tweaks such as making specific little accommodations and allowances.

"You need to implement the broader initiatives," Sladek says, "such as flexible hours [across the board] and paid-time-off banks.

"We see a lot of companies that do have allowances in place, yet the culture doesn't encourage a real work/life balance," she says. In those companies, "the managers say, 'Yea, we have those policies, but you're not taking advantage of them on my time; we have too much work to do,' " she says.

Which is also where training and well-communicated mind-set shifts from the top need to be instituted to get at this disconnect.

Too few organizations have woken up to the fact that "there really is an advantage to setting up structures where employees have more responsibility on their own, to decide on their own how to get their work done and just worry about the results," says Sladek.

"It's not a simple answer, such as, 'Oh, you need to put in these specific programs,' " she adds. "It really starts with a thought process, a philosophy [dictated from the top] and an array of programs. And in the end, it's really up to the manager and the employee to work something out" in that type of environment.

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