Thank you for coming to work. Now scram!

Most modern countries are seeing a steady rise in the amount of time people spend at work. There is some evidence, however, that this trend contributes neither to the bottom line nor to our overall well-being.

Way out

Esther Derby euthanizes the idea that long hours are a sign of employee commitment. She cites some alternative reasons people stay late at the office, including:

  • One woman’s marriage was disintegrating and she stayed late to avoid tension at home.
  • Another woman was using company assets to run a side business… and it was easier to hide it when people weren’t around.
  • Two people who were having an affair stayed late at work to be together.

Via Jason Yip’s excellent blog.

As for productivity, the sociologist Arlie Hochschild in one of her books mentions an IT copany that were in big financial trouble. Rather than lay some people off they switched to a 30-hour work week and a corresponding pay cut, and experienced no reduction in production. They did the exact same amount of work in 30 hours a week as in 40.

When the company righted itself each employee could choose to return to the original work schedule and pay or remain at 30 hours a week. They all chose to keep the short work week. Read the whole amazing story here.

A recent Danish study found that 90% of managers who worked 30-37 hours a week were satisfied with their work-life balance. Among managers working more than 48 hours a week, that percentage dropped to 46. The consequence: More stress, less job satisfaction and an increased risk that they will leave the company.

We’ve long known that reasonable working hours are one of the most important factors determining whether people are happy at work (and in life). Long working hours are not a sign if commitment and may not even contribute to business productivity.

Therefore businesses should stop encouraging (implicitly and explicitly) long work hours and start rewarding the people who go home on time. They’re good for business.

28 thoughts on “Thank you for coming to work. Now scram!”

  1. I think this is a Spain-only thing: a lot of companies force their employees to take two hours to eat. The eating habits are a little different: more food and later, about 14:00 or 15:00. But certainly everybody can do it in less than an hour. The two hours break, unless your house is very close to your office, are useless, added to commuting time completely kills any free time, and encourages spending part of it at the office.

  2. Huh, that doesn’t sound fair, Nick. I would certainly prefer to take a shorter lunch break and then leave a little earlier. I know the siesta is traditional, but it doesn’t make sense to make it mandatory.

  3. So, we’re in France with 35 hours a week on the right way.
    What about holidays ?
    We have at least 5 weeks of holidays per year.

    One thing, I’m sure about, 2 weeks of holidays is NOT ENOUGH.

  4. Absolutely Herve, the European countries are on the right track compared especially to the US.

    Here’s an interesting fact: Danish workers work less than their counterparts in other western countries (we usually have SIX weeks of vacation), but they are the most productive. So us danes work less, but get more work done. And that is probably a typical pattern.

    And i could never settle for 2 weeks of vacation a year either :o)

  5. Define “work.” The fact is that most time spent in the corporate workplace is wasted time. The corollary is that time is wasted primarily because the organization can’t define, communicate, or properly schedule objectives.

    Unless one is a skillful player one ends up becoming a Process Donkey. Competent employees are, unless they’re skilled avoiders, relegated to redressing problems created by the laziness and incompetence of their co-workers.

    Some time ago I started working as a primarily off-site, flexibly scheduled techncial writer. What I discovered was that I could produce far more documentation of far higher quality by staying off the customer site and out of the organizational quagmire.

    By working outside of the quagmire I effectively immunized myself against the rampant Process Donkeyism — recurring meetings, needlessly-complex administrative processes, struggling to identify goals — that’s taken over corporate culture.

    As such, I redfined “work.” The contemporary corporation defines it as time spent running in spirals, moving forward one foot for every fifteen feet of exertion. I define it as documentation produced.

    Finally, working as an independent allowed me to recover something I thought I’d lost forever in the mid 1980s: the ability to take pride in a job well done.

  6. “Absolutely Herve, the European countries are on the right track compared especially to the US.”

    Yeah sure. And what proof do you have that Europeans are getting more work done than their US counterparts? And why are European startups virtually non-existent– is it because you refuse to work as hard and as long as it takes to get the job done and therefore can’t be competitive?

    the proof is in the pudding my friends. take a look at the growing economies and the time they spend holidaying. forget about these studies.

  7. Riley: You’re on to something very important. Way too much time is wasted at work. Lars Kolind, one of Europe’s most respected business leaders just published a book called The Second Cycle, in which he announces his “war on bureaucracy”.

    There’s more information on the book here: http://www.thesecondcycle.com/

    euroman: You’re kinda right. Here’s one article on the matter:
    http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/en/doc/2003-09/01/content_260175.htm

    The article says that:
    U.S. workers are the world’s most productive, but they put in more hours than Europeans to score higher… In terms of output per hour we have three European countries doing better than the U.S. … and they have done so ever since the mid-80s.

    So yes, american workers produce more than most, but they spend more time at work to do so.

    And there are plenty of european start-ups. I’ve started a few myself. I’ll grant you that many of the most spectacular start-ups are american. Americans do seem to have an admirable gift for thinking big.

  8. I agree that there’s plenty of time wasting going on in American companies, but I have also worked with clients who struggle with workloads that get heavier every year. To increase profits, companies trim down the staff, which means that people are doing jobs that two or even three people did before. They can barely get through their work in 40 hours; less time wouldn’t help.
    But this double-duty technique can backfire too. When workers are overloaded, some tasks just slip through the cracks and never get done at all.

  9. I see what you’re saying Claire: Sometimes the work needs to be done, and the only way to get it done is longer hours, often because of cut-backs.

    I think that fundamental realization here, which you also hint at, is that after a certain point, longer hours mean *less* work gets done, due to fatigue, stress, low creativity, resentment, negative impact on personal lives, etc.

    In this case, rather than working more, you need to work more at prioritizing, instead of trying to do everything.

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