When Overwork Becomes a Habit

Businesspeople are urged to work longer, smarter, and stronger. The average worker, according to some data, now spends closer to 55 hours per week on the job than the traditional 40. Many are routinely working 70-hour-plus or more weeks.

How has the work week crept up over the past several decades, and what can be done about it?

How Work Weeks Got Longer

The 40-hour week was supported by a wealth of data gathered by the mid-twentieth century, according to Inc. At least some of it was based on industrial production. Data showed that 8 hours was an optimal length of time for worker productivity. Ten hours a day did not result in significantly more production than 8.

The factory floor was not the only one where work stayed within 40 hours a week in mid-twentieth century America, though. Managerial and professional occupations where making partner was the goal, such as law firms, consultancies, and accountant firms, relied on a system of junior workers who were bucking to make partner. Once they did, they could set their own hours.

The work week has crept up since the 1980s for several reasons.

First, although productivity does not entirely correlate with more hours worked, neither is the association negligible. Inc. indicates that while increasing a work week by 50%, to 60 hours per week from 40, doesn’t result in a 50% hike in productivity, it may result in a 25%-30% one. It seems that many companies took note, and employees have been incentivized to work more and more.

Second, organizations have increasingly developed cultures where long work weeks are seen as the measure of the best workers — the most hard-working and the most committed.

A recent Harvard Business Review observes that in some firms, “insecure overachievers” have been recruited as part of a business strategy to have highly talented people (overachievers) who constantly feel that they are in danger of failing or being surpassed by colleagues (insecure). As a result, they tend to work longer and longer hours in client service and other roles, just to keep up with the perceived competition.

Not only that, but this personality type polices and replicates the condition of overwork in favor of more overwork, and overwork as a cultural norm in their firms.

This is particularly true in knowledge work, the author postulates, because knowledge work is intangible. There is no clear, generally agreed upon way to measure it. It’s not the number of widgets produced in 8 hours.

Third, entrepreneurship has become increasingly valorized in business life. One of the features of entrepreneurship is hard work and dedication, which is often felt to be shown in long work weeks and constant involvement in work.

Fourth, technology increasingly makes long days and steady availability possible (and monitored).

Sixty- and 70-hour weeks can make weeks seem longer than they are.

How to Make Work Weeks More Manageable

There is no one way to make work weeks shorter, especially for people who work in a culture where they are valued.

The HBR article notes that people need to start to disengage from cycles that, anecdotally, last from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. They need to practice self-care, and management and other top performers need to lead the way for the culture to change. A change in work hours needs to start with business leadership.

Also, remember: excessively long hours do not lead to more productivity.

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