The longer hours we work, the less productive and efficient we are, so why have we built a culture where being overworked is more of a badge of honor and less of a reason to send people home at a reasonable hour? James Surowiecki looks at this question in his New Yorker column this week:
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 Solomon put it, past a certain point overworked people become “less efficient and less effective.” And the effects are cumulative. The bankers 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.”
Because the person who stays late at work and demonstrates dedication to her job reaps all the rewards, right? Not always. Raise your hand if you’ve worked long hours and wasn’t rewarded for your hard work.
In light of the death of a Bank of America intern who worked long hours, junior analysts on Wall Street are being told to cut the number of hours they work down. Goldman Sachs, for example, told their analysts that they should be working no more than 75 hours a week (rather than the previous norm, which was to never go home). But as Surowiecki points out, it’s not just about cutting hours, but also unreasonable expectations. Because people who leave work and then go home to continue doing work because they’re afraid they’re going to get behind are just continuing the cult of being overworked in the privacy of their own home.
Photo: Tim Regan