The Research Is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies

The Research s Clear: Long Hours Backfre for People and for Companes

agers want employees to put n long days, respond to ther emals at all hours, and wllngly donate ther off-hours — nghts, weekends, vacaton — wthout complanng. The underlngs n ths equaton have lttle control; over cascades from the of the organzatonal pyramd to the bottom. At least, that’s one narratve of over. n ths verson, we long hours because our bosses tell us to. (That’s the verson most on dsplay n the recent New York Times opus on Amazon.)

But there are other explanatons out there. There’s another that says all of us, ncludng senor agers, are bascally flotsam buffeted about by the eddes of economc ncentve, corporate culture, and technologes that keep the offce just a tap away. n ths verson, there’s no one really dctatng the norms; we’re all just reactng to macro forces beyond our control.

Then there’s the verson that looks at our psychology. n ths one, we log too y hours because of a mx of nner drvers, lke ambton, machsmo, greed, anxety, gult, enjoyment, prde, the pull of short-term rewards, a desire to prove we’re important, or an overdeveloped sense of duty. Some of these are negatve (see: gult, anxety) but y are postve. n fact, multple researchers have actually found that work is less stressful than our home lives. For some, can be a haven, a place to feel confdent and n control.

Bascally, f you thnk of the story of over as Moby-Dck, the frst explanaton foc on Ahab and the Pequod; the second on the ocean tself; and the last on the whale. And although lookng at the story from all of those dfferent perspectves s certanly more llumnatng than choosng only one, t won’t tell you whether Moby-Dck s a good book or just a 700-page doors.

So the bgger queston we have to ask ourselves about over s not just, “Who’s to blame?” but a more basc one: “Does t ?” s over actually dong what we assume t does — resultng n more and better output? Are we actually gettng more done?

There’s a large body of research that suggests that regardless of our reasons for ng long hours, over does not help us. For starters, t doesn’t seem to result n more output. n a study of consultants by Ern Red, a professor at Boston Unversty’s Questrom School of Busness, managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to. Whle agers dd penalze employees who were transparent about ng less, Red was not able to fnd any evdence that those employees actually accomplshed less, or any sgn that the overng employees accomplshed more.

Consderable evdence shows that over s not just neutral — t hurts us and the companes we for. Numerous studes by Maranna Vrtanen of the Fnnsh nsttute of Occupatonal Health and her colleagues (as well as other studies) have found that overwork and the resulting stress can lead to all sorts of health problems, ncludng mpared sleep, depresson, heavy drnkng, dabetes, mpared memory, and dsease. Of course, those are bad on ther own. But they’re also terrble for a company’s bottom lne, showng up as absenteesm, turnover, and rising health insurance costs. Even the Scroogest of employers, who cared nothng for hs employees’ well-bg, should fnd strong evdence here that there are real, balance-sheet costs ncurred when employees log crazy hours.

f your job reles on interpersonal communication, making judgment calls, reading other people’s faces, or managing your own emotional reactions — pretty much all thngs that the modern offce requres — have more bad news. Researchers have found that over (and ts accompanyng stress and exhauston) can make all of these thngs more dffcult.

Even f you enjoy your job and long hours voluntarly, you’re smply more lkely to make mstakes when you’re tred — and most of us tre more easly than we thnk we do. Only 1-3% of the populaton can sleep fve or sx hours a nght wthout sufferng some perforce drop-off. Moreover, for every 100 people who thnk they’re a member of ths sleepless elite, only fve actually are. The research on the performance-destroying effects of sleeplessness alone should make everyone see the folly of the all-nghter.

too hard and you also lose sght of the bgger pcture. Research has suggested that as we burn out, we have a greater tendency to get lost in the weeds.

n sum, the story of over s lterally a story of dmnshng returns: keep overng, and you’ll progressvely  more stupdly on tasks that are ncreasngly meanngless.

Ths s somethng busness frst learned a long tme ago. n the 19th century, when organzed labor frst compelled factory owners to lmt days to 10 (and then eght) hours, agement was surprsed to dscover that output actually increased – and that expensve mstakes and accdents decreased. Ths s an experment that Harvard Busness School’s Lesle Perlow and Jessca Porter repeated over a century later wth knowledge ers. t stll held true. Predictable, required time off (like nights and weekends) actually made teams of consultants more productive.

Now, ths s not to say we can never pull a long day. We just can’t do t routnely. Most of the research ’ve seen suggests that people can put n a week or two of 60 hours to resolve a true crss. But that’s dfferent from chronc over.

So why do we keep dong t? Why can’t we put the book down?

t could be gnorance. Maybe most people just know how bad over s, objectvely speakng.

t could be skeptcsm. Maybe they’ve seen the research, but just buy t (or choose to act on t).

Or t could be somethng stronger. Maybe when you combne economc ncentves, authorty fgures, and deep-seated psychologcal needs, you produce a cocktal that s smply too ntoxcatng to overcome.

Sarah Green Carmichael s an executve edtor at Harvard Busness Revew. Follow her on Twtter at @skgreen.

The Research s Clear: Long Hours Backfre for People and for Companes