40 and Out

I suppose you shall have the full day off. But I consider myself ill-used. Paying you for no work at all. I should dock your pay by sixpence. And just make sure you’re here all the earlier the next morning…

…Or words to that effect, as Ebenezer Scrooge grudgingly gives Bob Cratchit Christmas Day off.

I’m not sure how poor old Ebenezer would have coped with the 40 hour week and 25 days’ annual holiday – even less so if Bob had suggested he’d be more productive if he worked from home…


But the spirit of Scrooge lives on. There are still plenty of employers muttering ‘be here all the earlier the next morning’ – and thinking that the way to guarantee success is to be the first person in the car park every morning.

But I’ve never felt that more hours is the answer. As I have written so many times on this blog, it’s not more hours you need, it’s better hours – a view endorsed by my TAB colleague, Tom Morton.

I was listening to a radio programme to this effect as I drove round North Yorkshire the other week. When I was back in my office, I did some research – and found more and more evidence suggesting that the macho dogma of ‘throwing hours at it’ is simply counter-productive.

The US is famous for its culture of working long hours. A recent survey there – conducted by John Pencaval of Stanford University – found that more than 50% of people said they worked more than 50 hours a week. Not surprisingly, there was clear evidence that the internet, e-mails and mobiles were lengthening the working day.

But the research also showed that productivity falls sharply after 50 hours of work. And that it falls off a cliff after 55 hours. Most significantly, someone working 70 hours a week achieves no more than someone working 55 hours – apart from greatly improving their chances of seeing a divorce lawyer.

Working these extra hours may give a short term boost to productivity. But you – and/or your team – need to recover. So you’re essentially paying for that short term boost with reduced productivity further down the line.

There’s another reason why you shouldn’t work more than 55 hours a week. I’d like you to keep reading the blog. I don’t want anything to happen to you. The medical evidence against working long hours is overwhelming: if you work 55 hours a week – as opposed to the traditional 40 hours – your risk of a stroke increases by 33%. Not for me – or for any of my friends hopefully…

…But there’s even worse news for the Ed Reids of this world. Research conducted in Australia recently suggests that once you’re past 40 the optimal number of hours to work is 25 per week: apparently that’s the right amount of time to keep the brain stimulated, but avoid exhaustion and stress.

But surely, you’ll say, we’re all knowledge workers now? Those rules might have applied when work included a high percentage of manual labour, but surely we can apply our brains for more than 40 hours a week? After all, I’m pretty hot in the pub quiz on a Sunday night…

The answer is no: the reverse is true. Studies show that creativity and the ability to solve problems is even more affected by fatigue. Yes, grinding out solutions works – if what you want is inferior solutions. And nothing contributes more to inferior decision making than lack of sleep.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule: people who can genuinely manage with very little sleep – who can work ridiculously long hours. But sadly, there are far more people who think they’re exceptions to the rule. For the vast majority of us, the graph of perceived productivity vs. actual productivity once we go past 40 hours would be a sobering lesson.

I repeat, the answer is not more hours, it’s better hours. If your solution is simply to throw hours at a problem then in the long run you’ll damage your health, your business and your relationships. That can never be a price worth paying.

And with that sombre message I’ll leave you to a sun-kissed bank holiday weekend. I’ll be back next Friday with the business lessons you can learn from your Fitbit…

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