Why Overworking Doesn’t Work

Today’s always-on work environment overlooks research showing that the secret to productivity growth is finding time to work less, not more.

As technology and globalization continue to escalate the pace of work, it’s easy to feel like everything was due yesterday and that the best way to prepare for tomorrow is to put in longer hours today. It seems like a straightforward equation: If you’re behind where you want to be, increase productivity by putting in more hours until you catch up.

The problem is, every additional hour of work doesn’t result in one additional hour of productivity. In fact, working too many hours actually makes people less productive overall. So not only doesn’t overwork result in additional productivity, it often reduces productivity. Without enough time to recover from work, employees become more and more tired and stressed, and the resulting lack of focus reduces productivity, often leading to mistakes, accidents, illness and difficulty interacting effectively with others.

Effect-Recovery Model

The reason for the diminishing productivity can be explained by what social scientists Theo Meijman and Gijsbertus Mulder call the effort-recovery model, which says that people need time to recover after a period of extended effort or productivity will decline. Just as our muscles need time to recover after a hard workout at the gym, our minds need time to recover between work sessions to continue at the same pace.

Until recently, recovery has been built into the workweek, occurring automatically every time workers go home for the day. However, with the increased connectivity to work facilitated by mobile devices, today’s workers often never really “clock out.” For example, a survey by the Center for Creative Leadership of managers, executives and professionals found that “workweeks” generally include weekends for an average of 72 hours of work. While the per-hour cost of employees may appear lower because they are working 72 hours a week rather than 40, those extra hours incur hidden costs by reducing productivity and the productivity of others, increasing their health risks and increasing the odds of making mistakes.

One clear example of these hidden costs is sleep. When people work long hours, their sleep suffers. Lack of sleep, in turn, is linked to psychological and physical health problems such as anxiety, depression, diabetes, strokes, heart disease and risk of obesity, all of which damage performance and profitability directly through health care costs — not to mention accidents caused by sleep deprivation.

Because of this, a more sustainable way for organizations to improve productivity and profitability is to take recovery needs into account. Making sure employees have the recovery time they need can lessen the impact of the negative effects of a long-hours work culture, thus improving productivity. Business leaders should encourage employee-focused programs and services supporting recovery.

Here are five practices organizations can use:

  1. Educate employees about the importance of sleep and how to get more of it. Better sleep is one of the easiest and least used ways of improving productivity. Organizations can distribute sleep information to employees, provide flexibility in scheduling and discourage using communication devices late in the evening or in the middle of the night.
  2. Promote physical activity. Today the majority of corporate leaders are sedentary — sitting at computers, staring at devices and stuck in meetings. Exercise not only increases physical fitness but also boosts energy, mood and cognitive performance. Organizations have a variety of tools to encourage physical activity through wellness programs such as launching group exercise challenges and offering incentives to use corporate gyms. Getting up frequently to walk around during the day should also be encouraged as good practice.
  3. Introduce contemplative activities. A growing body of modern research confirms that contemplative practices improve mental capacity, outlook and attention. Mindfulness and meditative practices are ways to “press the pause button” during a busy day. Business and talent leaders can consider integrating mindfulness training into wellness programs and learning and development initiatives and providing online resources for employees to engage in wellness practices as they need them.
  4. Encourage social interaction. Spending quality time with others can lower stress levels and elevate mood, both of which are important aspects of recovery. Organizations can help employees build social connections in the workplace by fostering social interaction across business groups and by encouraging employees to do more than just be acquainted with one another.
  5. Express positive emotions. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has demonstrated that positive emotions increase energy, creativity and tenacity. The problem is that organizations tend to focus on the negative: groups that missed their goals, problematic negotiations, expense overruns and lost sales. Work cultures that identify and bring attention to successful performance and all the good and joyful moments at work are encouraging positive emotions, which fuel success. Don’t avoid negative realities and problems — just don’t make them the only news.

While people want to believe that working more hours will make them more productive, that isn’t necessarily the case. If you are invested in helping your organization become more profitable, inform the organization about how expecting employees to work too much can backfire. Not only is overwork not helpful, it is harmful to the individual and the bottom line. Help your organization bring out the best in people. It’s time to reconsider productivity in light of recovery.

Marian N. Ruderman is the director of research horizons and a senior fellow at research and advisory firm the Center for Creative Leadership. Cathleen Clerkin is a member of CCL’s senior research faculty. Jennifer J. Deal is a senior research scientist at CCL. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.

  • It’s not just knowledge workers. We’re seeing it in hourly-paid production workers who are taking lots of overtime during uncertain economic times to make as much as they can in case of a layoff. When recovery time isn’t built in all of the key metrics – safety, quality, productivity, and ultimately cost – all suffer. It’s part of management’s job to ensure that work hours aren’t just legal (in terms of max number of hours/week, etc) but that they OPTIMAL for the work being performed, and for the individual workers doing the performing That may mean more mandatory breaks, restricting overtime, and hiring more people – which on paper costs more, but in reality may not when you consider the impact on the key operating metrics. There isn’t a simple formula to optimize – it requires some hands-on management and really understanding and knowing the people to get this right. Bottom line – leaning out the people side of the organization may create short term gains, but it isn’t a sustainable solution.