Wouldn’t you rather work fewer hours, if it meant the same level of output and the same level of pay? According to the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule, only about 20% of what you do each day produces 80% of your results. With that in mind, the hope is that there is a way to trim the fat on your workday, allowing you to cut hours without cutting productivity. That’s the contention of Timothy Ferriss in his book The 4-Hour Workweek. If you have a traditional full-time career, trimming your weekly hours from 40 to four likely won’t fly with your boss. But if you’re working well over 40 hours per week, there is evidence that those long hours don’t mean you actually get more accomplished.
It makes sense if you think about it: A long work day or work week without a sufficient break to recharge is just going to leave you dragging your feet.
Still, the culture of overwork in America is alive and well. In fact, it’s being fed by advances in technology, as more and more employees take their work home with them, even sacrificing sleep to work longer hours. Full-time workers in America average a 47-hour workweek, according to a 2014 Gallup poll. Of those surveyed, 21% reported working 50 to 59 hours per week and 18% reported working 60 or more hours. As millennials in the workforce increasingly demand a healthier work-life balance than their parents may have had, perhaps this will begin to change. And hopefully, with growing evidence of the impact of long hours on productivity, employers will be forced to start paying attention too.
In 2013, data from the OECD showed what appeared to be a worldwide trend suggesting that more productive workers put in less time. The Economist published the following graph showing the relationship between GDP and annual hours worked.
The above graph, though, only represents a correlation, a more recent article from the Economist explains. A 2014 study by John Pencavel of Stanford University more definitively shows that reducing working hours can be better for productivity. Interestingly, Pencavel’s data set goes back to World War I. He looked at research undertaken by investigators of the British “Health of Munition Workers Committee” (HMWC) and analyzed the effects of weekly hours on productivity. The following graph shows the study’s results.
You’ll notice there is a certain point at which weekly output starts to level out. Pencavel found that below 49 weekly hours, variations in output are essentially proportional to variations in hours. However, when people worked more than about 50 hours, productivity rose at a decreasing rate. In other words, reducing a worker’s hours from 55 to 50 per week would have a minimal effect on weekly output. With extremely long hours, the disconnect is even more clear. Productivity after a 70-hour work week hardly differed from a 56-hour week. The additional 14 hours were basically a waste of time. Based on the HMWC data, the absence of a day off during the week also does significant damage to output.
Of course, this is an isolated look at one specific job setting, but the general trend is clear. Sadly, this study doesn’t exactly justify reducing a 40-hour week, but if you are one of the many severely overworked professionals in this country, here’s evidence that you could be wasting your own time. At the very least, maybe it’s time to stop checking your work email from home.