Hard work may not pay after all 

Emma Jacobs
Charlie Chaplin in the movie "Modern Times"
ullstein bild Dtl. | ullstein bild | Getty Images

Every year between May and September, all 54 employees of Basecamp, a Chicago-based web applications company, work a short week: just four days — a total of 32 hours. They work a conventional five-day week the rest of the year.

"That's plenty of time to get great work done. This is all we expect and all we want from people," says Jason Fried, co-founder. "Working 50, 60, 70-plus [hours] is unnecessary. In fact, if you have to work 50, 60, 70-plus hours a week, there's a management problem."

The company's summer workload must fit reduced hours, Mr. Fried insists, otherwise the benefits of a shorter week — to recover from work, enjoy time with family and pursue outside interests — would be undone.

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His philosophy chimes with new research that finds it is not just long hours that are harmful to employees' physical and mental health. It is also the intensity of work — tight deadlines and a relentless pace. Moreover, it suggests that intense work harms career prospects. That is because excessive hours and intensity are counterproductive, reducing the quality of the work.

The forthcoming study, called "Implications of work effort and discretion for employee wellbeing and career-related outcomes: an integrative assessment", to be published in the Industrial and Labor Relations Review, concludes that the level of intensity we apply to the work we do (defined as the level of effort supplied per unit of working time) is generally "a stronger predictor of unfavourable outcomes than overtime work".

The researchers, Argyro Avgoustaki, assistant professor of management at ESCP Europe and Hans Frankort, senior lecturer in strategy at Cass Business School, compared people in similar jobs and education levels, and found they were more likely to suffer poorer wellbeing and inferior career prospects, including satisfaction, security and promotion, when they worked at an intense level for long periods.

The authors say they want employees to understand "the limitations of excessive work effort, for employers to give discretion when viable, and for public policy [makers] to devise strategies that help limit the adverse consequences of work intensity".

Mr. Frankort, senior lecturer in strategy at Cass Business School and co-author of the report, says the research suggests the career benefits of excessive work effort — longer hours or harder work than typical in one's occupation — may never materialize. "So, it may be a mistake to accept reduced wellbeing in the hopes of improving future career prospects," he adds.

The researchers based their conclusions on data from a random sample of 51,895 employees from across 36 European countries.

Employers and government should try to reduce work intensity rather than try to control excessive hours, the authors concluded. "Employers and policymakers focus a lot on the latter, but compared with overtime, work intensity predicts much greater reductions in wellbeing and career-related outcomes," says Mr. Frankort.

Clearly there is a link between workload and hours. But, the researchers say, giving employees a choice about where and how they work can alleviate pressure by allowing them to choose the order, method and pace of work, as well as determining hours and breaks.

Governments have recognized the dangers of extensive hours, and some countries, notably France, have granted workers the " right to disconnect" at the end of the working day. The policy has been mirrored by some employers, including Volkswagen. Some large banks, including Goldman Sachs and Bank of America Merrill Lynch, have sought to reduce working hours.

Almuth McDowall, visiting senior lecturer in organisational psychology at City University, agrees that policymakers and employers focus too much on tackling long-hours culture. But she points out that work intensity is tough to measure. It "often creeps up on people, as what tends to happen in practice is that people get asked to take on extra tasks but these are not written down anywhere or made explicit."

Previous research has suggested long hours are detrimental to productivity, with workers prone to making mistakes, becoming anxious and burning out. Alexandra Michel of the University of Pennsylvania studied bankers over nine years and found that by the third year of overwork their bodies started "taking revenge", leading to tics such as nail-biting and hair-twirling, and insomnia.

One explanation for long-hours culture is that it is a proxy for results — a deeply ingrained belief. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Erin Reid, associate professor at McMaster University's DeGroote School of Business, and Lakshmi Ramarajan, assistant professor at Harvard Business School, recounted how one company awarded a prize to the person who had taken the most flights in a year.

"Valuing work time over work product — which motivates people to deceive others about how many hours they're clocking — is an easy trap to fall into," they concluded, "especially for professionals, whose knowledge-based work is difficult to evaluate."

But not everyone is persuaded that lighter workloads or hours are the right approach. Marc Effron, author of Eight Steps to High Performance, believes that high-performers must sacrifice family and leisure and commit to intense work.

"A large part of the argument about working hours seems to be individuals trying to force their personal beliefs on others. I hear it expressed as: 'No one should work that many hours. People need to spend time with their families.'

"These individuals aren't willing to or are unable to perform at those levels, so want to pull down others who can and will."

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