The Cult of Overwork is alive and well. Sigh!

The Cult of Overwork

European workers don’t work enough hours compared to Americans. That is the message in this article written by a London-based venture capitalist. From the article:

As anyone who’s ever been there or visited will attest, in Silicon Valley everyone is working *all of the time*.

And while this might seem unhealthy, not scalable, obsessive, manic or simply ridiculous, from an ecoystem perspective it’s basically unbeatable. If you want to build companies and ride the wave of innovation, it’s a 24/7 preoccupation — not just a lifestyle business. By contrast, I am in London-based startups’ offices all the time and I am gobsmacked when they are nearly empty by 6:30 PM.

I can see where he’s coming from – I really can. It’s so easy to equate “working long hours” with “commitment” and “success”. When you see the office full of people late at night, you automatically think “WOW, these people are serious – they’re going places.”

You’d be forgiven for thinking so, but you’d be no less wrong. Please show me a single study that demonstrates the link between massive overwork (ie. working 60, 70, 80 or more hours a week for long stretches of time) and increased worker productivity and corporate success.

On the other hand, there’s stuff like this:

In 1991, a client asked me to conduct a study on the effects of work hours on productivity and errors…

My findings were quite simply that mistakes and errors rose by about 10% after an eight-hour day and 28% after a 10-hour day…

I also found that productivity decreased by half after the eighth hour of work. In other words, half of all overtime costs were wasted since it was taking twice as long to complete projects. After the study was done, a concerted effort was made to increase staffing.


The cult of overwork is the prevailing belief that the more hours people work, the better for the company. That notion is not only harmful, it is dead wrong, as this story from Arlie Hochschild’s book The Time Bind demonstrates.

One executive, Doug Strain, the vice chairman of ESI, a computer company in Portland Oregon, saw the link between reduced hours for some and more jobs for others. At a 1990 focus group for CEOs and managers, he volunteered the following story:
“When demand for a product is down, normally a company fires some people and makes the rest work twice as hard. So we put it to a vote of everyone in the plant. We asked them what they wanted to do: layoffs for some workers or thirty-two-hour workweeks for everyone. They thought about it and decided they’d rather hold the team together. So we went down to a thirty-two-hour-a-week schedule for everyone furing a down time. We took everybody’s hours and salary down – executives too.”

But Strain discovered two surprises.

“First, productivity did not decline. I swear to God we get as much out of them at thirty-two hours as we did at forty. So it’s not a bad business decision. But second, when economic conditions improved, we offered them one hundred percent time again. No one wanted to go back!

Never in our wildest dreams would our managers have designed a four-day week. But it’s endured at the insistence of our employees.”

Interesting, huh? They cut back work-hours but production remains the same.

So where exactly is the evidence (apart from our own unexamined bias) that overwork is a prerequisite for success?

Your take

What’s your take? Would you only invest your money in a company where the parking lot is always full – even on Sundays? What does tons of overtime do to you personally? Do you get twice as much done in an 80-hour week as in a 40-hour week? What does it do to your life outside of work?

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14 thoughts on “The Cult of Overwork is alive and well. Sigh!”

  1. I love the picture…
    Thank’s God, it is not mee, must be a bit
    I love to work and create stuff on my computer, but there is so much more in my life to do besides that. Be with the one you love, going to the movee, travel, sleep, make love, eat interesting food, drink champagne, read a good book, tak to people in the office etc.
    I gues I am just a lucky self-employed europeen entrepeneur or what?

  2. I’m a Dane currently living in Los Angeles where the ‘must pretend to be busy and work late’ illusion is rampant! I have myself worked for a fashion company where we often needed to stay late because of poor management planning and it always resulted in a poor product and generel dissatisfaction amongst the workers. My husband works for a publishing company where it’s more important to appear to be busy than to actually get any work done. It’s so commen here and is so wasteful, both for the company spirit but also for the individual. It kills the joy of working and producing, because you are being judged on the amount of hours you put in and not the quality of your work in those hours.

  3. Mette, I love your list, these indeed are the good things in life.

    I know for a fact I can’t be productive the 8 hours a day I’m required to hang around at the office. I’m a “resident statistician” in a research center and constantly learning, thinking, figuring things out, tapping to the knowledge of my field I’ve accumulated. There is no way I’m doing that for more than, in fact, 3-4 hours a day. I can force it, at least for a short while, but it makes me so exhausted in the evening my free time is completely spent on just recovering – effectively making my free time not so free after all.
    Some days I know I’ve given my share already – but the clock says I have to stay in for another 2 hours or what ever. So I fill out sudokus and read the newspaper and surf the net… which are kinda ok, but I’d appreciate a wider range of choices which would include stuff outside the office. Stuff on Mette’s list.
    But I can’t do those since my employee wants me to stay in even though I’m no use to them anymore that day. No one wins. (In their defense, no one personally requires, it’s just the “system”.)

  4. Mette – i envy you!! i am working toward self employment so i can have more time for friends and loved ones and reading in the middle of the day, not to mention creating fun gifts!

    Anne – being a native Angeleno, i know EXACTLY what you’re talking about! i’ve spent time in creative fields (costuming for stage/film) and working in regular 9-5 office environments and both seem to have the same amount of poor planning resulting in last minute work producing poor results and it seems that NO ONE really understands what the phrase “cost effective” truly means, because all last minute work is wasteful and usually requires a do-over =-(

    and in the office environments, many people do what Seija does if they can not leave the office after accomplishing the bulk of their work – surf the net, play games, do Facebook updates; if only we could have ROWE: Results Oriented Work Environment where you can go home if you’ve accomplished what needs to be done in just a few hours instead of a long drawn-out 8-hour day, it would be a great work world!!

    Thankfully, Alex is doing his part to help change the work world by bringing light to the fact these tired old practices are just not effective anymore – GO ALEX!!

  5. I often find that if I stay late, then the first thing I have to do the next morning is correct my mistakes. I am now trying to leave on time .. it’s hard when you are conscientious, like the work and have a lot to do but,, when the chips are down, no one even considers how many extra hours you have done,,,,,

    Unless there is a formalised flexi working system in place, it is often hard to take time off in lieu of extra hours worked and you end up being ‘owed’ lots of hours and end up resenting having to do so much work and not be paid. I once had a therapist ask me” So why do you do these extra hours, was anyone asking you to do it,,, and if not, why did you do them?’ I realised that I couldn’t give a good answer and it was of my own doing!

    So now,if I work overtime, it is because I choose to do so, not because it is expected of me . That makes it feel less of a burden somehow.

  6. Yeah well when there are no jobs, and your boss tells you that your reward for all your hard work over the past year is that you get to keep your job (thanks, boss), and when you live in a society where job security is at a premium, you are constantly under pressure.

    At the same time, when you get no raise for more than 2 years, you kinda get turned off to wanting to do any kind of overtime for your boss.

  7. In many cases, senior management is so out of touch with the production side of things they don’t have any “productivity” metrics that aren’t completely worthless. As Paul Goodman put it 45 years ago, “they don’t know what a good job of work is.” So they wind up using “face time” as a proxy for productivity. The other side of it is that most of the extra time spent in the office by people competing to be seen as last out is probably devoted to “reverse telecommuting”: paying bills, surfing the web, shopping, talking on the phone, personal email, etc.

    In other words, that venture capitalist is stoopid.

  8. I live in Mexico city and just got a new job in which people work from 8 am to 730 almost everyday. I really think people is not working well and most of them are really unhappy with this situation but they still work that way everyday and think that people who just work 8 hours a day are not doing things right.

    This article is really true, but I wish there was a sugestion about how to make an organisational/cultural change over this matter.

  9. “And while this might seem unhealthy, not scalable, obsessive, manic or simply ridiculous, from an ecosystem perspective it

  10. I briefly worked in the US a few years ago and noticed a contrast with working here in australia. In the US, everyone turns up for work early in the morning, and stays in the office until later at night, but they just don’t do as much actual work. In the states, my colleagues didn’t seem to have as many productive hours in the day; they spent a time blogging or reading the news or whatever which doesn’t happen as much at home.

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