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Why Working After Hours May Decrease Productivity


Long hours have become the norm for many employees. However, new research shows that organizations and individuals may be less productive, not more, when working excessively long days and nights. While good intentions and a strong work ethic drive individuals to go above and beyond, working excessive overtime hours can actually decrease focus, creativity, decision-making abilities, and overall job performance over time.


Today we will explore the research behind why working after standard hours decreases productivity, provide practical tips for organizations and individuals to combat overwork culture and establish sustainable productivity, and share examples from specific industries that have embraced flexibility and output-focused work.


The Research on Decreased Productivity from Overwork


Extensive research has been conducted on the impact of long work hours and excessive overtime on both individual and organizational performance. Some key findings:


  • Cognitive abilities decline sharply after 50-55 hours per week. Studies have shown mental acuity, focus, and decision-making abilities decrease significantly once weekly hours surpass 50-55 hours due to fatigue. An oft-cited Australian study found a 20% decline in effectiveness past 55 hours per week.

  • Health issues arise with overwork which further decrease productivity. Prolonged high stress from overwork leads to increased risk of illnesses such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes which then impact work. Lack of sufficient rest also inhibits the body's regulatory processes for focus and concentration.

  • Creativity suffers from overwork. Coming up with innovative solutions and ideas requires breaks, unwinding, and free thinking time which are hampered by constant workload pressure and exhaustion. Research links high work hours specifically to declines in creative problem-solving abilities.

  • Presenteeism increases costs. Employees who come to work sick or injured due to lack of paid leave end up being less productive and spread illness to coworkers, decreasing overall team output. The costs of presenteeism are estimated to be higher than absenteeism in numerous studies.

  • Attrition rises with overwork culture. High-stress, long hour environments lead to increased stress, burnout, and employee turnover which are very costly for organizations to replace experienced staff.Retaining top talent requires sustainable work-life balance and output-focused policies over face time at a desk.


While intentions to work extra hard are admirable, research conclusively shows individual and organizational productivity decreases when standard hours are routinely exceeded due to the cognitive, physical, and strategic toll of overwork. Maximizing sustainable output requires establishing flexible, flexible working cultures.


Practical Tips for Combating a Culture of Overwork


Based on the research, organizations and individuals can take specific actions to boost productivity by combating a culture of overwork:


For Organizations:

  • Establish clear expectations around standard work hours. Define the hours employees are contractually expected to be available and actively working to set boundaries and allow for personal time.

  • Incentivize output, not overtime. Tie performance reviews, bonuses and promotions to measurable goals, deliverables and client feedback rather than face time. This shifts the focus to productivity from busyness.

  • Provide flexibility. Allow flexible schedules when possible, remote work options, and paid time off to encourage employees to recharge without fear of career consequences. Lack of flexibility is a key driver of overwork.

  • Lead by example. Executives and managers need to model reasonable work hours themselves and encourage team members to unplug and unwind outside of standard business time.

  • Offer wellness programs. On-site gyms, meditation rooms, nutrition education and subsidized healthcare can support employee health and combat stress which fuels overwork tendencies. Healthy employees are more focused.


For Individuals:

  • Set boundaries around work communications after hours. Do not routinely check or respond to emails, calls or messages once standard workday ends to carve out personal time.

  • Guard time off. Use all available paid time off to recharge mentally and physically away from work stressors. Burnout creeps up without sufficient breaks.

  • Develop hobbies outside of work. Pursue interests, spend time with family/friends and immerse in non-work activities on nights and weekends for balance.

  • Track your hours. Record how much overtime is truly being worked versus perceived to build self-awareness around sustainable output levels.


By normalizing reasonable work hours at both organizational and individual levels, businesses can optimize employee well-being, retention, productivity and performance over the long-term.


Industry Examples of Output-Focused, Flexible Working Models


Some industries and companies have embraced policies focused more on measurable output and work-life flexibility rather than face time in order to drive both employee satisfaction and business results:


Technology:

  • Buffer, a social media management platform, moved to a 32-hour, 4-day workweek pilot a few years ago reporting increased productivity and reduced stress. Employees completed the same work in less overall hours with more focus.

  • Basecamp, a project management tool startup, instituted unlimited paid time off, no tracking of vacation days taken, and encouraged employees to take at least 3 weeks off annually to prevent burnout. The company has continued growing rapidly while maintaining a happy, healthy culture.


Professional Services:

  • PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) launched an "Work Your Way" program allowing employees to pick schedules between 70-100% full time with prorated benefits based on hours worked. This accommodates different life stages while retaining top diverse talent and improving work-life fit firmwide.

  • Deloitte began offering "mass remote work" due to COVID-19 that it has extended long-term, with 83% of U.S. employees now remote-eligible at least part-time. Employee surveys show high satisfaction with schedule flexibility and work getting done regardless of location.


Non-Profit:

  • Girl Scouts of the USA permitted flexible schedules during the pandemic allowing staff to better manage family responsibilities like childcare or eldercare. Productivity rose alongside improved morale as employees felt supported through a difficult time.


These examples show that when output and well-being are prioritized over rigid face time and presenteeism, both employees and organizations can thrive. Output-focused flexibility is a sustainable productivity solution.


Conclusion


In today's world, a perception exists that the more hours worked equals higher performance and commitment to the job. However, research conclusively demonstrates individual and organizational productivity decreases once standard working hours surpass 50-55 hours per week due heavy cognitive and physical toll of overwork. Leaders need to recognize that sustainable maximum output is optimized through reasonable schedules, flexibility, and output-focused incentives rather than overwork culture. Both organizations and individuals benefit when priorities shift from busyness to well-being, work-life balance and tangible outcomes through establishing clear expectations around standard work hours, removing stigma around flex-time, offering wellness resources, tracking outputs not overtime, and leading by example. Examples across industries like technology, professional services and non-profits illustrate how output-focused, flexible approaches boost performance long-term over rigid presenteeism. With attention to research and practical solutions, a culture of unrealistic overtime can transition to one maximizing sustainable productivity.


References


 

Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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