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The Mythical 50-Hour Threshold

By now, most managers know that working people 50 or more hours per week has detrimental health impacts on employees and harmful effects on work quality. Many studies have linked long hours with disease and death; many studies have linked long hours with a decline in thinking ability, quality, and productivity.

This magical 50-hour mark is problematic. These studies are having unintended consequences in the world of work. What I’m noticing is a perception of organizations that managers can and even should work their employees as close to the “red zone” as possible. There is a perceived spectrum where employers, and even employees, think they can safely work very close to the red and not have any negative impact. To compound matters, managers fall prey to the “I did it, so can you” logical fallacy. Observing this phenomenon has made me question whether those of us in leadership are thinking about this all wrong.

Differently-Resourced People

Studies on work hours, work stress, and the negative consequences vary in terms of the hours they focused on in the study. These studies did not universally conclude that 50 hours a week is the switch that should not be flipped and that it’s okay to work 49. What I think the studies have shown is (wait for it, my favorite saying) It Depends.

People are born with or develop different resources than others. Those resources range widely and can include an innate ability to be resilient with low stress or having a strong supportive community of friends or family. It isn’t fair or realistic to expect everyone to be born with or develop the same resources. I believe it is the manager’s job to recognize and support those who are differently resourced when they have skills and abilities to make the overall group more innovative and effective. Translation: Focus on creating a work situation around the employee, not around the time clock – and you will ultimately get more from that employee in fewer hours.

Rewarding the Wrong Thing

It’s illogical to recognize employees as “hard workers” for working lots of hours. Consider: If one employee accomplishes a task in 30 hours, and another accomplishes the same task in 40 hours, which one is more deserving of reward? Should the employee who only put in 30 hours for the week be viewed as not a hard worker? Ultimately, when we recognize and reward people for working long hours, what we’re saying is that we value time logged instead of outcome achieved. We may even inadvertently reward the poor decision-making (on their part or otherwise) that led to the long hours or poor time management skills over good time management skills. We’re also sending a message that we value perceived short-term gains over the aforementioned big-ticket consequences of overworked employees.

The problem I see is that organizations want to optimize for ease of administration instead of the actual outcome, and it’s frankly easy to think that there’s a magic number we should all stay below. In reality, some people should only work 20 hours a week to maintain health and quality, and they may come pretty darn close to producing the same value as someone else who needs to work 30 or 40 hours to achieve the same outcome. Madness, you say? Check out some of the research that found workers who were able to control when, where, and how they worked achieved comparable outcomes in 2/3 of the time as those in office during set hours working 40 hours per week. Also, Netflix. (I ❤ you, Netflix!)

Life Stuff Time

Not all hours are worth the same, depending on when and how you spend them. I could write a whole article about this, but to keep it brief, let’s say out of 24 hours a day, I need 8 to sleep, 1 to be clean and dressed/undressed, 2 to prepare and consume nourishment, 1 to travel to and fro, and 1 for the unexpected things. That’s 13 hours, leaving me with 11 hours. Keep in mind that I haven’t let my brain do anything else yet in this model but the bare essentials. If I work 8 hours a day, that leaves me with just 3 hours a day for life stuff, like reading to my child or exercising or watching a movie. (“Life Stuff” is the stuff that keeps you sane, healthy, and productive – and if you think you should do all of that on the weekend, I could create another model that includes all of the bare essentials that get reserved for weekends, and it would make this look even worse). If I work even one hour more per day, I’ve cut my life stuff time down by 1/3 that day. Wow. If I work even 43 hours per week, I cut my life stuff time down to zero on the day I did that.

You may be thinking this is not so terrible if I spread it out over five days, so let’s take a look at that:

Three life stuff hours per day x 5 days a week = 15 hours. If I work 45 hours a week instead of 40, I just lost 1/3 of my life that week. Again, that is 1/3 of the time I would have spent on something that will keep me sane, healthy, and productive. By working 45 hours a week, I’ve roughly given up 1/3 of my life.

Here’s the big question: Can we as leaders possibly ignore all of this just because we are caught up in the status quo, or we think we don’t experience any ill effects from giving up our life stuff time?

Hopefully, you are a manager who gives a darn about your people, and as a result, you read articles and books about management. (Bluntly: If you aren’t, you should be. The world of work is changing all the time. I firmly believe that managers must be forward-thinking to keep their organizations competitive and better understand and leverage both the current and the next generation of talent). I’ve provided a couple of links to the books with studies about the relationship between hours worked, employee health (mental and physical), and organizational prosperity. Suffice to say, 50 hours is not a magical number, and good managers won’t assume a magic number that fits all. Good managers also won’t accept that someone who works 42, 45, or 50 hours a week is more productive, effective, or a harder worker than someone who works 35. The best approach is to design work around the person and develop ways of measuring the quality of work produced versus the quantity of time logged – and compensate based on achieving outcomes, not output.

Additional reading:
Breaking the Mold – Redesigning Work for Productive and Satisfying Lives by Lotte Bailyn
The Truth About Burnout – How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What To Do About It by Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter
Toward a Model of Work Redesign for Better Work and Better Life by Leslie A. Perlow and Erin L. Kelly

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