Stop Working More Than 50 Hours a Week! It’s a Waste of (Everyone’s) Time

Photo (cc) by yomanimus

You probably have some idea that you’re wasting time when you sit at your office desk through the dinner hour. Any boss worth his or her salt knows this, too. Now, there’s proof that even a formula-addicted economist could love. So as you sift through all the New Year’s resolutions you have already failed to keep this week, it’s not too late to preserve the most important one: Don’t work too much.

restlessHdr (1)Really, you are wasting your time, and your employer’s time. Yet millions of Americans do just that. In a Gallup poll published last year, 4 in 10 Americans said they work more than 50 hours every week, and 2 out of 10 more than 60 hours. The average workweek is 47 hours!

workweek chart
From the study. (The arrow is mine.)

A study published last year by John Pencavel of Stanford University makes the bold claim that productivity falls sharply after about 50 hours worked in a seven-day week. It falls off a cliff after 55 hours. In fact, folks who worked 70 hours in his study basically accomplished nothing more than folks who worked 55 hours. So, there it is. Go home for dinner.

There have been plenty of such studies before, but mostly using self-reported hours or inexact measures of output. Stuffy economists hate those. Pencavel used a neat data set he found that dated back to World War I at a munitions factory, when the need for output was infinite.

Right now, you are probably thinking that output at a munitions factory has nothing to do with output from your computer keyboard, and you might be right. But this is the trade-off that economists looking for hard conclusions with real data, rather than general assertions from anecdotes, must make.Pencavel’s real contribution comes in spotting the productivity cliff: Other research has demonstrated that more hours don’t necessarily equal more results, but his research suggests a natural limit to workdays and workweeks. Pencavel calls it a “highly nonlinear effect.”

“At 35 hours, an additional five hours to the length of the working week has consequences for the effective labor input that are quite different from an additional five hours starting at 48 hours,” he writes.

Employers will be happy to see that the research suggests there’s a limit to the positive effect of cutting back hours. Twenty-hour workers don’t do as much as 40-hour workers, for example.

I wouldn’t be surprised if further research contradicts this, however. In the knowledge economy, where creative bursts are more important than time spent in a chair, some workers do more in an hour than their colleagues do all day. Measuring that isn’t easy, but companies and bosses would do well to reward those inspired hours rather than time.

In its story on the research, The Economist put it this way: “For work that is largely self-directed, and which requires intellectual engagement, you may achieve more in an hour of hard work than in a day’s worth of procrastination.”

I wouldn’t start the year asking for a four-hour workweek, however. Start small. Be realistic about your ability to be effective after eight or so hours of effort in a day. Don’t believe you’re an exception; you likely are not. And if your boss balks, show him this incredulous phrase from the report:

Is it possible that employers were unaware that hours could be reduced without loss of output? Why should an employer resist cutting working hours: If workers’ earnings are tied to their hours of work, then fewer hours imply lower labor costs and, if shorter hours yield the same output, why would any firm knowingly select the higher hours? Even if workers are paid entirely by results and not by time worked, there are ancillary costs of long working hours such as the expenses of running complementary machinery and of providing light, heat, ventilation, and supervisory labor.

Notice, his argument applies whether workers are paid hourly (that is, entitled to overtime pay) or not.

More from Bob Sullivan:

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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