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Careful: Long Hours Can Backfire for People and for Companies

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While the pandemic restructured work schedules and reshuffled places of work, the pandemic also rearranged the work-life balance significantly for most people. Whether because the office is now at home, or because of new shifts, or due to new supply and demand dynamics, many workers saw their work hours increase significantly over the past year. Now that we are entering the post-pandemic world, and schedules will be adjusted once again, it is important to consider the importance of the potential toll long hours can take on both workers and companies. 

In a Harvard Business Review article, The Research Is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies,  Sarah  Green Carmichael explores the dangers of long hours for both individuals as well as companies.

Reasons for long hours can come from a variety of sources.

  • Overwork cascades from the top of the organizational pyramid to the bottom. Managers want employees to put in long days, respond to their emails at all hours, and willingly donate their off-hours — nights, weekends, vacation — without complaining. 
  • all of us, including senior managers, are easily pulled in by the economic incentive, corporate culture, and technologies that keep the office just a tap away
  • We log too many hours because of a mix of inner drivers, like ambition, machismo, greed, anxiety, guilt, enjoyment, pride, the pull of short-term rewards, or an overdeveloped sense of duty. 
  • Multiple researchers have actually found that work is less stressful than our home lives. For some, work can be a haven, a place to feel confident and in control.

“Does it work?” Are we actually getting more done?

  • There’s a large body of research that suggests that regardless of our reasons for working long hours, overwork does not help us. 
  • While managers did penalize employees who were transparent about working less, Reid was not able to find any evidence that those employees actually accomplished less or any sign that the overworking employees accomplished more.
  • Overwork is not just neutral — it hurts us and the companies we work for. Overwork and the resulting stress can lead to all sorts of health problems, including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease. 
  • That’s also bad for a company’s bottom line, showing up as absenteeism, turnover, and rising health insurance costs. 
  • Overwork (and its accompanying stress and exhaustion) can make interpersonal communication, making judgment calls, reading other people’s faces, or managing your own emotional reactions more difficult. 
  • Only 1-3% of the population can sleep five or six hours a night without suffering some performance drop-off. 
  • Work too hard and you also lose sight of the bigger picture. 

In sum, the story of overwork is literally a story of diminishing returns: keep overworking, and you’ll progressively work more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless.

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