How many of us have a 15-hour work week? That’s what economist John Maynard Keynes predicted 21st-century automation would bring; in fact, he believed our main problem would be figuring out what to do with all that spare time!
Fast forward to today, and the reality is that we’re busier than ever. Full-time U.S. employees work 47 hours per week, on average. In Japan, work can get so intense that there’s even a term — “karoshi” — which means “death by overwork.” Meanwhile, Millennials have been labeled the “burnout generation” — more prone to overwork and stress, especially since “always on” communication tools keep them connected long after the workday ends.
Overworking seems to be the new normal. But does working longer hours actually work for you and your employees? And if not, how can you beat overworking and reclaim control of your work-life balance?
Does overworking actually work?
The 40-hour workweek, considered the U.S. standard, was pioneered by Henry Ford around 1914. In a then-controversial move, Ford decreased his workers’ hours from nine to eight hours per day and doubled their pay — and his business boomed as a result. Other companies started adopting this practice, and it soon became the norm.
However, that was then and this is now, and you might be forgiven for thinking that the eight-hour workday is all but forgotten in the 21st century. Today, many work 60 hours a week, while some people even work 100-hour workweeks.
If you think doubling working hours correlates one-to-one with productivity, think again. On the contrary — multiple studies show that working more than 40 hours reduces productivity, and this applies to “knowledge workers” as well as industrial workers. Another study finds that after eight consecutive 60-hour workweeks, any productivity gains over a 40-hour week are completely erased.
Not only that, but overworking is also directly related to stress, anxiety, depression and heart disease. While you can get short-term gains in productivity by overworking for brief periods — whether because of a crisis or to meet a deadline — it’s only effective if done rarely. Even then, it will take a team time to return to normal productivity.
What employers can do to prevent overworking
With 66% of U.S. full-time employees feeling they don’t have a good work-life balance and 33% of employed U.S. adults working on any average Saturday, Sunday or holiday, overworking is affecting our quality of life.
However, the antidote to working long hours isn’t simply to leave at 5pm. In many cases, employees work longer hours for reasons related to company culture, upper management, uneven distribution of workloads or personal time management. So what can you do as an employer to restore work-life balance?
To start, try these tactics:
- Set the precedent. Set clear schedules for all employees — and discourage working off the clock. Lead by example by leaving when your shift ends, and establish clear boundaries for yourself on weekends or while on vacation where you don’t work or check emails, encouraging employees to do the same.
- Refrain from work-related communication outside of working hours. To discourage working off the clock, refrain from sending communications after working hours unless it’s urgent. In many cases, employees may feel pressured to reply or be available in order to make a good impression. If necessary, create a draft email and send it the next morning. Or, if you must send something after hours, tell employees they don’t have to respond immediately.
- Implement time-management practices. Some examples of how to better manage time include helping employees set aside weekly blocks where they can unplug from chat and email, minimizing distractions and improving productivity. You can also encourage your team to create personal “office hours,” designating certain days and times when people can meet with them.
- Encourage your employees to take paid time off. Did you know that American workers forfeited over 200 million vacation days that couldn’t be rolled over in 2017? Given that workers are significantly happier and more productive after taking a vacation, it benefits employers to encourage employees to use all their paid time off, too.
What employees can do to prevent overworking
If you’re an employee prone to working overtime, try these tips to take back control:
- Complete the big tasks first. It can be tempting to knock out small tasks first in an effort to check as much as you can off your to-do list. Instead, try to get the most important tasks out of the way first. This will help you leave work at a normal hour, rather than pushing the important things to the end of the day so you have to keep working.
- Make plans to leave the office. If you have trouble leaving the office, try booking an exercise class or making plans to get dinner with a friend in the evening. Having an appointment in the evening will help you be more productive during the day and force you to leave work at a normal time.
- Set boundaries. If you find yourself getting sidetracked with additional work when you’re trying to leave, set proper expectations: tell people what time you’re leaving and that they'll need to communicate with you before then. If possible, mute your app notifications when you leave work so you’re not tempted to respond to chats or emails. Remember, other people won’t respect your time unless you do it first.
- Reevaluate what’s necessary. Has that weekly check-in meeting turned into something that could simply be said in an email? Reevaluate your calendar regularly to make sure every event is actually necessary. Think about whether you need to physically attend every meeting and what could be cut to make time for yourself.
To sum it up...
Being overworked and stressed may be a feeling that many of us have grown accustomed to — but the truth is, it often has a negative impact on productivity. While there will probably come a week when you need to work more than 40 hours to get things done, it’s not beneficial to make a habit of overworking.
By implementing tactics that will get everyone out of the office earlier, both employer and employee will benefit — and end up happier, healthier and more productive.