Long Hours Myth

In the early 1920s, workers at Henry Ford’s factories were typically working 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. In 1926, after 12 years of internal research, analysis and testing, Henry Ford made a decision that shocked the industry. He cut the working week to 5, 8-hour days — a one third drop in the overall working week from 60 to 40 hours. At the same time he increased wages to ensure that his employees were compensated at the same — or a higher — level. His competitors were outraged. Until they saw that Ford’s productivity increased — he was getting more out of a worker in 40 hours than he previously had been in 60, which had a considerable benefit in reducing overall costs. The competitors soon followed suit themselves and over the following decades the 40-hour work week became the norm for American companies — supported by hundreds of tests and studies similar to the ones that Ford originally carried out.

A review, carried out by the Business Round Table, looked at research studies carried out across the construction industry. Its findings were stark:

Where a work schedule of 60 or more hours per week is continued longer than about two months, the cumulative effect of decreased productivity will cause a delay in the completion date beyond that which could have been realized with the same crew size on a 40-hour week.

Not only did forcing ones workers to work longer hours actually delay projects, paying for these additional hours — often at overtime rates of 1.5 to 2.0 times the regular wage — resulted in massive increases in the overall costs.

Looking specifically at carpenters, the following productivity levels were seen:

  • 8-hour day Completed units 120 pieces per hour. 4,800 pieces completed per week.
  • 9-hour day Completed units 100 pieces per hour. 4,500 pieces completed per week.

The costs of increased working hours extend beyond increased labour costs and fewer widgets produced. Workers who are tired tend to perform poorer quality work in general. They are more likely to make mistakes. They are more likely to have accidents. It seems crazy that organisations believe that they benefit from longer working hours in the face of so much evidence to contrary, and yet they continue to do so.

These studies tended to look at traditional blue-collar jobs, ones that involved manual labour in some form or another. It is easy to see how a worker, on their feet, burning hundreds of calories an hour, is going to become increasingly less effective the more hours that they work due to simple exhaustion. If this exhaustion is compounded week after week then inevitably they will fall far below peak efficiency. But what about the white collar jobs that an increasing proportion of the population occupy? Sitting at a desk, tapping on a computer or speaking on the phone is scarcely hard labour — surely the same productivity arguments don’t hold true in those kind of roles?

It turns out that they do. Studies suggest that for mentally demanding work people are most effective if they carry out around six hours a day of solid work. Much above this level and you start to see the same kind of productivity drop-offs that blue collar workers experience. Things become even more extreme if one is working the kind of hours (with the attendant lack of sleep) that Mita Diran was experiencing in her advertising agency.

In 1981 the US Army carried out a study on the effects of sleep deprivation upon an artillery field direction centre team (FDC). These were not soldiers engaged in physical fighting, their task was to plot the location of a target (as given by observers further forward) and derive range, bearing, angle of gun elevation, and charge. The author writes:

In our study, FDC [artillery Fire Direction Center] teams from the 82nd Airborne division were tested during simulated continuous combat operations lasting 36 hours. Throughout the 36 hours, their ability to accurately derive range, bearing, elevation, and charge was unimpaired. However, after circa 24 hours they … no longer knew where they were relative to friendly and enemy units. They no longer knew what they were firing at. Early in the simulation, when we called for simulated fire on a hospital, etc., the team would check the situation map, appreciate the nature of the target, and refuse the request. Later on in the simulation … they would fire without hesitation regardless of the nature of the target.

At 15 days into the simulation the 4 hour sleep/night battery is firing less than a third of the rounds that the 7 hour sleep/night battery is firing.

From looking at this, and many other studies, the army came to the conclusion that complex mental performance actually degrades much more quickly through exhaustion than physical ability. A soldier can keep marching after being awake for more than 48 hours, still aim and fire their weapon, but such tasks as correctly identifying enemy combatants from civilian bystanders can be quite beyond them.

You don’t have to be pulling a series of all-nighters to experience the adverse effects of lack of sleep. The University of Pennsylvania carried out a study in which the subjects had between four and six hours sleep for 14 consecutive nights. By the end of the fortnight their impact upon their cognitive performance was the same as if they had gone without sleep for three days straight. Critically, however, the test subjects didn’t feel particularly sleepy and didn’t realise that they were operating at well below their normal levels.

Why do organisations not only permit, but actively encourage, their employees working hours that reduce their overall effectiveness? For some companies, such as law firms and consultancies that bill by the hour, the sad truth is that they don’t hugely care about productivity. It is not in the interest of a law firm to have a solicitor bill 60 hours for a piece of work that, through working punishingly long days, could take 100. If they have agreed a fixed fee for the job, it is a different matter — but the concept of maximising billable hours is so engrained in their culture that they don’t stop to think what is actually most effective for productivity. It is for this reason that I believe many other organisations fall into the same trap. Working hours are easy to measure track. Productivity, particularly that of complex intellectual work, much less so. Working hours have become a simple, yet erroneous, proxy for the output of an employee.

In some industries — particularly software companies — where this approach has been taken to extremes. The team working on the software for the original Apple Macintosh in the autumn of 1983 worked crazy hours — Steve Jobs bragged to the press that they were putting in at least 90 hours a week each. To celebrate this fact management presented the team members with grey sweatshirts emblazoned with the slogan “90 hours a week and loving it!”. They would doubtless have been loving it more, and completed the project sooner, if they had only been working 40 hours a week.

Software developed Evan Robinson has written extensively and eloquently on the fallacy of the long hours culture. When he worked at Electronic Arts he endured “crunch modes” — which would often last for months — periods of hugely long working hours intended to ensure that a project got delivered on time. In one crunch period his mandatory working hours were 9am to 10pm seven days a week, with the occasional opportunity to leave at 6.30pm on a Saturday evening — a working week in excess of 85 hours. He writes of this approach:

Any way you look at it, Crunch Mode used as a long-term strategy is economically indefensible. Longer hours do not increase output except in the short term. Crunch does not make the product ship sooner — it makes the product ready later. Crunch does not make the product better — it makes the product worse. Crunch raises the odds of a significant error, like shipping software that erases customer’s hard drives, or deleting the source tree, or spilling Coke into a server that hasn’t been backed up recently, or setting the building on fire. (Yes, I’ve seen the first three of these actually happen in the last, bleary days of Crunch Mode. The fourth one is probably only a matter of time.)

The impact of such hours goes far beyond pointlessly delayed projects. A study of 10,000 people, carried out in the USA between 1987 and 2000 found that people who worked at least 12 hours a day had a 37% high chance of injuring themselves. The risk of a software developer injuring themselves at work is pretty low, to be sure, but when they get back in their cars to drive home things are a little different. Medical interns are a good study group, as their shifts-lengths are well documented — they are significantly more likely to have a traffic accident when driving home from an extended shift.

The damaged caused by exhaustion-induced accidents can be hugely more significant than car crashes. In March 1989 the oil tanker the Exxon Valdez ran around, spilling millions of gallons of oil, causing an environmental catastrophe, and costing its company billions of dollars in compensation and fines. Whilst a number of factors combined to cause the disaster — the captain was asleep in his bunk, leaving the bridge to more junior and less experienced officer, the fact that this officer, the third mate, had only slept for 6 of the previous 48 hours was identified as directly contributing to the cause of the accident.

There are further, subtler, effects of long working hours. One is the reinforcement of the asymmetric — or perceived asymmetric- power relationship between the employee and their employer. There are few better ways for an organisation to demonstrate its dominance over you than to force you to give up increasing amounts of personal time and instead spend it working to achieve their goals. The second is to increase the sense of jeopardy in the organisation. The situation is sufficient precarious that the organisation has no choice but to make such demands of you, if they don’t then it, and hence your job, is at risk. Finally, the longer you spent at work, the more likely you are to adopt the psychology of a hostage. If you end up working an insane crunch, you have few waking hours that are not either in, or travelling to and from, work.