Stop Extreme Work Hours – a Labor Day Resolution

Today let us reject extreme work hours. They harm workers and families, and diminish us as a society. And the hours are unproductive.


I must thank Jena McGregor for making this same point so forcefully in her recent article in the Washington Post, “Stop touting the crazy hours you work. It helps no one.”

McGregor points out that Donald Trump frequently criticizes Hillary Clinton for sleeping, and brags about not taking vacations. She also reminds us that Marrisa Mayer recently told Bloomberg Businessweek that Google’s early success depended on people who could answer one question, “Could you work 130 hours in a week?” Mayer went on to explain that “The answer is yes, if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom.“ I fully agree with McGregor that this insanity has to stop; as she says in her article, “The idea that being well-rested could be a black mark against a leader is preposterous.” She then makes the same point that we made in our book: productivity decreases after working 50 hours a week, and plummets once you hit the high 50s.

There is ample research on human productivity, which is why everyone who looks at credible data comes to the same conclusion. We do not do good work when we are tired. Fatigue makes us stupid and error prone. It’s similar to being drunk on the job. It is bitterly ironic that leaders at tech titans, who pride themselves on their love of data and facts, so willfully ignore this fact on human productivity. There is no data to  support the absurd and destructive notion that a human being has 130 productive hours to give in a week. To believe otherwise is to act like a member of cult, who blindly follows the leaders, scorns those outside the cult and refuses to acknowledge any facts that contradict his/her beliefs.

Today is a good day to reflect on this. It is Labor Day, a public holiday observed in the US and Canada in honor of working people. Tomorrow everyone will be back at work, all the kids will be back in school and we will start the most intense working period of the year for most of us in the US – the sprint from Labor Day to Thanksgiving, late in November.

Working extreme hours is not just bad for an individual worker, but also for the worker’s family and community who are deprived of that worker’s presence, guidance and assistance. In our book, Business Ethics for Executives, we devote two chapters “The Big Time Crunch” and “The Many Sacrifices of the Ideal Worker” to an in-depth discussion of this big problem. We discuss the “pride in being superhuman” exhibited by bosses like Ms. Mayer and Mr. Trump, the compulsive habit of busyness that so many of us have adopted, and how work can become an addiction. We explain the harmful effects extreme work hours have on marriages and children. And we show how unreasonable the expectations of workers can be. We also address the scourge of unpaid overtime in a chapter on fair wages, “The Laborer is Worth His or Her Wage but Doesn’t Get It”, and show how workers have not been rewarded for their productivity increases since the mid 1970s, unlike in decades prior.

Business leaders have an important role to play in resetting unrealistic expectations. It is vitally important that they lead by example. If the boss works 18 hours a day and rarely takes a vacation, that sends a message to everyone that first it is expected of them too, and second that it is the way to get ahead in the organization. In the book, we’ve devoted quite a few pages to practical advice on how executives can change the culture at their organization. This includes things like properly winding down the workday, considerately scheduling meetings in a 24/7 globalized world, avoiding weekend work and using a maximum hour constraint as a productivity enhancement tool to eliminate wasteful work and “lean up” processes.

If you are an executive, changing the corporate culture will take leadership and courage. As we say in the book:

“You may have gained your own seniority by putting in all those extra hours, because it was expected of you and because it was rewarded. But like any cycle of abuse, it can be broken only if someone treats the next person and the next generation better than he or she was treated. This is the Christian way.”

Will you make this resolution on this fine Labor Day? If you do, please tell other people and pass it on!

Posted by Peet van Biljon