Why it is harmful to work too much

Too long working hours and excessive labor intensity are counterproductive and reduce the quality of work.

Every year from May to September, all 54 employees of the Chicago company, the developer of web applications Basecamp, work four days a week – only 32 hours. In other months of the year they have an ordinary five-day week.

“This time is enough to cope with all matters perfectly. We do not need anything from employees anymore”, says Jason Fried, co-founder of the firm. – Work for 50, 60, 70 or more hours a week is not necessary. In fact, if your work week lasts 50, 60 or 70-odd hours, this is a management problem”.

The company’s summer workload should match the reduced hours, Fried says, otherwise employees will not feel the benefits of a shortened week, such as a full recovery from work, more time for family and hobbies. His philosophy echoes the new study, which found that a long week is not just an extra working hour, harmless to the physical and mental health of employees. It also means an increased intensity of work – a tight schedule and a tight pace. The study showed that too intense work harms the career – because too long working hours and excessive intensity of work are counterproductive and reduce the quality of work.

The authors of the study, Argyro Avgoustaki, assistant professor of management at ESCP Europe, and Hans Frankort, senior strategy teacher at Cass Business School, analyzed data on 51,895 employees randomly selected from 36 European countries. They studied the integral impact of labor efforts on the well-being and career of employees. Conclusions: a high intensity of work (defined as the level of effort applied to carry out tasks in a unit of working time) often leads to unfavorable results than overtime work.

Researchers compared people with the same positions and education. They found that well-being and mood, as well as career (job satisfaction, stability and progress) are worse for those who worked with high intensity for a long time.

According to Frankort, the study showed that career benefits that people expect from excessive work (i.e., longer or more severe than typical for a given profession and position) are never realized. Therefore it is wrong to put up with discomfort in the hope of a career growth in the future, he adds. Employers and the government should try to reduce the intensity of work, rather than control processing, the authors advise.

The relationship between workload and working hours is obvious, the study says. Therefore, employees must choose the order, ways and rates of work themselves, as well as determine the number of working hours and breaks, the study authors say.

Governments recognized the danger of a too long workweek, and some countries, in particular France, provided employees with the “right to disconnect” at the end of the working day. Some employers, including Volkswagen, take into account the shortcomings of the long working week in the personnel policy. Some large banks, including Goldman Sachs and Bank of America Merrill Lynch, are trying to cut working hours.

Almuth McDowall, associate professor of organizational psychology at City University, London, agrees that politicians and employers focus too much on how to address the shortcomings of a culture based on a long working week. She points out that the intensity of work is difficult to measure. In practice, employees are asked to take on additional tasks that are not described anywhere or are not completely clear, the expert says.

Previous studies have shown that prolonged working hours worsen productivity, employees are more often mistaken, experiencing anxiety and burn out. Alexandra Michael from the University of Pennsylvania studied bank staff for nine years. She found that in the third year of work with overloads, overworked bankers had neurotic habits (for example, nibbling or twisting strands of hair), as well as insomnia.

The universal adherence to the culture of processing is explained by deeply rooted faith that long-term labor is the guarantee of high results. Erin Reid, associate professor at DeGroote School of Business, and Lakshmi Ramarajan, assistant professor at the Harvard Business School, wrote in an article in the Harvard Business Review magazine that one airline awarded a special award to the employee who made the most trips for the year. For many employers, working time is more important than a product, it encourages employees to hide how much time they actually spent on work, and companies easily fall into this trap – especially when it comes to skilled employees whose work is knowledge-based and therefore difficult to assess, write experts.

But not everyone is convinced that reducing the load or reducing hours is the right approach. Mark Efron, author of “Eight Steps to High Productivity”, believes that qualified and efficient employees should sacrifice their family and leisure for the sake of intensive work.

“I often hear statements that no one should work for so many hours and that people should have time for a family. But the one who thinks so, simply does not want or is not able to work intensively, and therefore calls on others to slow down”, Efron said.


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