The longer you work, the more productive you are? Not so, say experts

Research shows that more time at your keyboard does not necessarily translate to greater productivity. (Photograph: Penny Haw.)

THE results of a German study conducted by the Institute for Work and Technology (IAT) suggest that the idea that a longer working week leads to greater productivity is a fallacy. The extra hours, it claims, are simply a waste of time.

Other recent research is even more explicit, saying that long working hours are counter productive, diminish motivation and efficiency, and cause mental health problems.

The IAT study examined the working hours and productivity of the 15 European Union countries and shows that a shorter week might actually be an incentive for greater productivity.

“Shorter working time is a productivity whip for companies, whereas longer working only leads to a waste of time,” said Steffen Lehndorf, the IAT’s expert on working hours.

Lehndorf said the facts do not support claims that a longer working week would increase Germany’s industrial competitiveness.

According to the study, France, with a working week of less than 38 hours, has a productivity level of 117.9 points based on a EU average of 100, while Germany, with an average working week of close to 40 hours, has 106.8 points. Britain has an average 43-hour working week and is much less productive with 85.5 points.

The IAT’s findings are supported by research conducted earlier this year by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). This analysis found that, while workers in the United States were the world’s most productive, they put in significantly more hours than Europeans to score higher. Workers in France, Belgium and Norway beat the Americans in productivity per hour. (Americans work up to twelve weeks more each year than Europeans.)

Another study, this time by psychologists Tim Kasser of Knox College and Kirk Warren Brown of the University of Rochester, finds conclusive evidence that the longer people work beyond about 30 hours a week, the less happy they are. Excessive productivity demands and long work hours, they say, lead to increased levels of stress, irritability, depression, absenteeism and, in fact, a potential loss in productivity.

Lengthy hours at work can also result in fatigue, putting safety at the workplace at risk. In some cases, the ability to make quick and accurate decisions is affected. There is also evidence of increased alcohol and drug abuse among people who experience the strain of working long hours.

Research says workers often sacrifice activities that are vital to their mental health in order to work longer hours. They exercise less, are more inclined to eat junk food, spend less time with their families and friends, do not socialise, and devote fewer hours to their hobbies and recreation. Importantly, these are all factors that promote good mental health and help relieve mental health problems when they occur.

In addition to this, as people’s working hours increase, so do the number of leisure hours they devote to thinking or worrying about work. Many overworked individuals struggle to relax when they are at home or on leave. Some experience insomnia.

“Stress is endemic to our lives these days,” says John de Graaf of Cornell University. “Our home and family lives mirror the frenzied productivity that fills our workplaces. Children carry diaries and many are chained to school, sport and cultural schedules that used to be reserved for CEOs. And yet, for all this busyness and for all the hours we ostensibly spend so industriously, we are generally less satisfied and, in many cases, less productive than ever.”

According to South African human resource specialists, this country’s executives are among the most stressed in the world. Correspondingly, the ILO says the average working week in South African is 48 hours. Many people spend 12 or more hours at the office and, assisted by the growing prevalence of the laptop and other nifty portable equipment, continue to work at home.

Despite the theories, a) that performance should not be judged by the hours spent in the office, and b) that if a person spends too much time at work, it means he or she is not efficient and/or cannot delegate effectively, many people struggle to achieve a work-life balance, jeopardising relationships and their health, and perhaps, after all, being less productive to boot.

“Balancing your work and personal life, especially if you intend climbing the corporate ladder, is difficult,” says US career activist, Dr Barbara Moses. “The key is, coincidently, the same one that will help make you most productive and efficient within sensible work hours – self-discipline.”

She recommends that extra effort be focused on self-motivation, self-management and self-discipline. A clear vision of priorities, and a commitment to satisfying them during defined work periods will help reduce hours. The premise is that if a person finds satisfaction with his or her work and personal life, and takes pride in achieving that satisfaction in spite of external pressures, they will achieve work-life balance.

“It is no good working shorter hours if you feel guilty or dissatisfied once you have left work. That can also be harmful to your mental health. The solution is to be effective in as short a time possible and not to fall prey to unrealistic expectations, whether prompted by your manager or yourself. ”

Longer working hours are counter productive:

• Additional stress and irritability reduces efficiency
• Anxiety and tiredness impacts decision-making
• Fatigue puts safety at risk
• Poor work-life balance diminishes morale
• Affects mental and physical health
• Increased absenteeism

(First published in Business Day.)

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About Administrator

Freelance writer based in Hout Bay near Cape Town in South Africa.
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