13th May 2021 0 Comments Purpose

The fallacy of long hours: why working more doesn’t get the job done

Silhouette of person walking representing overwork

Earlier this year, a group of Goldman Sachs juniors made headlines, when they spoke out against their grueling 95-hour working weeks. 

The thirteen employees created a presentation, detailing the detrimental effects of overwork on their mental and physical health. According to their survey, analysts were sleeping an average of five hours a night; 75% had started or had considered starting therapy due to the stress of the job, and 100% found that long hours had negatively impacted their relationships with family and/or friends. 

“The sleep deprivation, the treatment by senior bankers, the mental and physical stress,” read one quotation from a despaired junior banker. “I’ve been through foster care and this is arguably worse”.

Presented first internally, the PowerPoint found its way online, cooking up a storm on Twitter. But two months later, the analysts disappeared from corporate news. Did their protest leave any mark on the way we view work?

Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week

A century ago, it didn’t look like we’d be working as much as we do today. Trade union membership was increasing, and factory workers were protesting for better working conditions, higher wages and a limit on hours. In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the year 2000, we could be working as little as 3 hours a day, leaving people with far more time for leisure. 

In 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that by the year 2000, we could be working as little as 3 hours a day, leaving people with far more time for leisure. 

Things looked like they were changing. In the mid-twenties, industrialist Henry Ford popularised the 40-hour week, advocating that working more leads to only a small increase in productivity, lasting for a short period of time. In the decades following WWI, the average full-time week in the UK fell steadily from 46 hours in 1946, to 40 hours by 1979. If this trend were to continue, we were on course to reach a four-day week by 2040.

But in the 70s, the long-run decline in working hours began to stagnate. Economic growth slowed and trade unions lost power. Stable work was replaced with part-time shifts, and companies demanded longer hours. Digital technology contributed to the feeling of a never-ending working day; gig-economy workers spurred by algorithms to maximise profits with less breaks and longer hours; while office workers became constantly contactable, around the clock.

In addition, cultural narratives around work began changing. “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”, became a popular slogan in the 80s and 90s, reflecting a diminishing gap between what we do and who we are.

Indeed, while there was less change in average weekly hours, the distribution of work was shifting rapidly. For most of history, the longest hours have been worked by lowerpaid, lower-educated workers; however in this period, the trend reversed. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, between 1979 and 2002, the frequency of long work hours dropped by 6.7% percentage points in the lowest quintile, but increased by 14.4% percentage points among the top quintile of wage earners. In high-earning industries, overwork had become a mark of dedication and virtuosity. 

“I realised that I had lived with it for so long that I had kind of forgotten what life would be like without it – to feel that sense of both accomplishment and impending doom.”

The rise of Silicon Valley in the 1980s engendered a new way of quantifying success. “There are way easier places to work, but nobody ever changed the world on 40-hours a week,” business magnate Elon Musk tweeted in 2018, in response to a Wall Street Journal article describing Tesla’s culture of long hours. How many hours are needed to change the world? “About 80 sustained,” Musk tweeted. 

Do long hours work?

But here’s the great paradox of overwork. It isn’t working. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang has spent nearly a decade writing about what society has got wrong about the way we work, and has written numerous books on the topic. 

“Long hours actually are bad both for individuals and for companies”, Alex reiterates over Zoom. He is standing in the garden of his home in California, wearing a yellow puffer jacket. Green trees pop out against blue walls. He looks well-rested.

He was on sabbatical with his wife in Cambridge when it first hit him: “Maybe the things we think about how we have to spend our time, about the relationship between overwork and accomplishment, maybe they are not only wrong, but backwards.” 

Despite spending most of his time doing leisure activities, he found that was getting a lot done, talking to interesting people, and having great ideas. All this, he adds, without the “the constant time pressure of being half a step behind all my projects”, which had become a normal part of his life in Silicon Valley.

“I realised that I had lived with it for so long that I had kind of forgotten what life would be like without it – to feel that sense of both accomplishment and impending doom.”

“We start to get really fatigued at about 50 hours. And basically at 60 hours, you might as well have not added that last 10 because it really just does make us so exhausted and burned out.”

In recent years, a wave of research has shown that working excessively long hours is not just bad for our health, but bad for our performance too. “When you look at all the evidence, anything over 40 hours, it can mean that there’s less productivity.” expounds Jennifer Moss on an episode of The 80% podcast. “We start to get really fatigued at about 50 hours. And basically at 60 hours, you might as well have not added that last 10 because it really just does make us so exhausted and burned out.”

Being burned out is a type of chronic exhaustion. It can lead to higher rates of chronic disease and depression, and is linked to weakened immune systems and even cardiovascular disease. In 2015, an analysis of almost 300 studies found that harmful work practices are as bad for mortality, and as likely to lead to a physician-diagnosed illness, as second-hand smoke, a recognised carcinogen.

When employees burn out, companies suffer. Burnout leads to higher rates of alienation, more mistakes, a higher likelihood of committing ethical lapses and cheating.

“When people are chronically stressed, they’re less creative, they’re less innovative,” Moss contends. “They’re less likely to offer dissenting opinions, which is really important for us to have collaborative workplaces.”

Working at home, living at work

In 2019, the World Health Organisation defined burnout as “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The language here is critical. Identifying workplace stress as a failure in management emphasises that the problem is institutional; not individual. Burnout cannot be fixed with self-care and breathing techniques. The solution requires leadership and systemic change. 

What happens then, when the global workforce are forced away from each other, away from the office, into their respective homes?

It comes as no surprise that rates of burnout have risen during the pandemic, exacerbating the already prevalent feeling of never being fully able to “switch off”. According to a study supported by HBR, surveying more than 1,500 respondents in 46 countries (sixty-seven percent of which working at or above a supervisor level), 89% of respondents found their work-life was getting worse, 85% said their well-being had declined, and 50% felt unable to maintain a strong connection with friends. The survey found that millennials have the highest levels of burnout – largely due to “having less autonomy at work, lower seniority, and greater financial stressors and feelings of loneliness.”

The new routine of working at home, or living at work, is challenging – to say the least. I speak to Josh, a junior investment banker, over Zoom. How does he cope with his workload? 

“It’s hard. I mean, it’s very hard,” he laughs. “You’re working on so many different things and spinning so many different plates, and then bam, something comes in, and you just have to do that.” 

Before the pandemic hit, the stress of the job was alleviated by being in the London office, among other juniors doing the same thing. Now he works alone in the bedroom of his family home in Sheffield, tapping away on his computer into the night. 

“There are definitely areas where seniors can take advantage of certain things,” he admits. Lying in bed at 11pm after a day’s work, listening to a podcast, his phone would buzz with an email, with amendments he must immediately action.

“You don’t have that physical end of leaving the office anymore,” he explains. “So it becomes difficult to know when to switch it off.”

“What I’m seeing now though, is a greater openness to growth, to the idea that a change like this is feasible.”

Yet while the Covid-19 pandemic has blurred the already murky lines between work and rest, it has also prompted many leaders to rethink ways of working that have been regimented for decades. Alex is hopeful that having experienced the global workforce shift to remote working under such sudden and adverse circumstances, “the idea that my people could never make this change kind of evaporates.”

“It used to be that when I would talk about it, there was a real challenge getting companies, or managers to accept the idea that, [a 4 day week] was feasible,” he explains.

But now that is changing. “What I’m seeing now though, is a greater openness to growth, to the idea that a change like this is feasible.”

Breaking habits

The trouble is that habit is a strong force. Things become hard to change, by the very fact that we are used to doing them. “When you speak to a lot of the other analysts, we just think a lot of things that are done are so inefficient,” Josh admits. “We spend a lot of time on things which probably don’t need to be done, or they could have been done in a better way. We’ll pull together a 50 slide deck for a client, which we could have done in 30, and it would have probably taken half the time.”

I float the idea of a 4 day week to him. Could he imagine his company making such a drastic change? “It’s hard to say,” he hesitates. “Because obviously when you’re new to the industry, you can’t really voice aside the concerns. And if you do voice concerns, will they be taken on board?”

It’s hard to disagree. David Solomon, Chief Executive Officer of Goldman Sachs, responded to the first year analysts’ complaints by reiterating that employees should “all go an extra mile for our client, even when we feel that we’re reaching our limit”.

Yet Alex remains optimistic: shorter hours needn’t be out of reach for industries where long hours are typically taken as the norm. “I think that rather than assuming that because of tradition, or because your customers expect you to be always available, that this won’t work in your company.”

“The burden now,” he clarifies, “is on employers to explain why it is that it won’t work in their firm, when it actually has worked in plenty of other firms like theirs.”

“Rather than assuming that because of tradition, or because your customers expect you to be always available, that this won’t work in your company. The burden now, is on employers to explain why it is that it won’t work in their firm, when it actually has worked in plenty of other firms like theirs.”

What’s notable now, is the type of organisations who are making the transition. Alex lists industries such as finance, restaurants and software startupseven law firmswho have shortened their working week. According to his research, these companies have successfully transitioned to working less hours, “and have performed as well as or outperformed their peers in which employees are still sleeping under their desks.” 

“This is going from a risky thing that companies think other people are going to disapprove to being something that is a market differentiator and a sign that your people and your company are so good that you can do in four days what other people require five to do.”

Can we restructure work to do better?

Assess inefficiencies

Alex argues that restructuring work begins with redefining what we mean by achievement, which isn’t necessarily conducive to long hours. “There are studies that show that workers in offices lose between two and fours hours of productive time every day to overly long meetings, to multitasking, to self-distraction, to bad processing etcetera.”

Instead, shorter hours means employees treat these hours as more precious, getting more done in less time. Collectively, it “creates an incentive for companies to be more productive, to find ways to eliminate inefficiencies”. Can a default 60 minute meeting be done in 20, he asks?

This might involve finding ways to gather perspectives from all employees in an organisation, whether through surveys or symposiums.

Value rest

Having a limit on working hours is not just beneficial for mental health, but also the health of an organisation. Alex advocates that scheduling rest periods after intense periods of work is important; we recharge our batteries, while our creative subconscious continues functioning.

“In the last couple of decades,” Alex writes in Rest, “discoveries in sleep research, psychology, neuroscience, organizational behavior, sports medicine, sociology, and other fields have given us a wealth of insight into the unsung but critical role that rest plays in strengthening the brain, enhancing learning, enabling inspiration, and making innovation sustainable.” 

Managers can ensure that employees have adequate time to rest outside of work by setting max working hours (and limiting their own after hours contact), or encouraging staff to take days off (Josh mentioned positive initiatives at the bank where he works, like giving staff an extra day off during busy periods). 

More autonomy 

An absence of autonomy is a key factor in causing burnout. Among all else, it was a lack of agency that Josh found particularly distressing about his job. “Things just crop out of nowhere, and need to be done tomorrow or today,” he explains. “It becomes chaos, because you’ve got all this other stuff to do”. 

It would make a huge difference, he feels, if juniors were given more notice about when new projects will launch, what work they need to do, and how long they have to do it. 

Giving employees more control of their time enables results in greater efficiency, greater efficacy, and less anxiety.

Encourage cross-divisional conversations

Recognising burnout as an organisational problem means seeing individual issues as interconnected. As part of her research into the topic, Jennifer Moss came across the chief of innovation on the same teams conversation as a frontline employee. “They were both talking about their issues,” she explains, “trying to manage childcare.”

Indeed, a response to collective issues requires collective action. As Alex puts it – “collective action turns out to be the most important form of self care. You and your colleagues are all facing the same challenges. And it is far more powerful to approach and to solve them together rather than to do so individually.”

“Collective action turns out to be the most important form of self care. You and your colleagues are all facing the same challenges. And it is far more powerful to approach and to solve them together rather than to do so individually.”

Help employees invest meaning in their work.

If managers want to get employees back to the office, Alex believes that the question of meaning is more important than ever. Yet this goes beyond meditation webinars or wellness days.

Inspired by the work of the Austrian neurologist and philosopher, Viktor Frankl, Alex believes that finding meaning in our lives is at the core of who we are. “Meaning,” he says, “is not something that you discover at the end of a quest, but rather something that you make every single day.” 

“Companies and leaders should think more explicitly about the question of how you design work in order to create space for people to find meaning,” he propounds. This could be through investing the work with a greater social purpose, or enabling more opportunities for flow.

“Meaning is not something that you discover at the end of a quest, but rather something that you make every single day.” 

As the writer Annie Dillard famously said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” If the average human being spends over thirteen years of their life at work, we better make those hours mean something.