Long Hours Won’t Make You More Productive. There’s a Better Way

In today’s competitive workforce, many employees brag about their willingness to burn the midnight oil and work themselves to the bone. You know the kind of worker you might even be one yourself consistently staying late at the office and coming in early, forsaking any bounds of a personal life. It isn’t an uncommon attitude; half of the full-time worker population spend more than eight hours in the office every day.

This ideal has been the cornerstone of career expansion in the US. It’s believed to prove an employee’s dedication to their workplace and job and is often touted by big-name employers. Elon Musk, for example, suggests others should follow his lead of working 80-hour weeks. He’s famously said, “Nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a weeks.”

For years, long days spent in the office have been equated with how hard you work. After all, the longer you work, the more effective you are as an employee, right?

working long hours productivity

Well, no, not necessarily.

While an extra hour or two might allow employees to accomplish more during a particularly busy day, it’s not a sustainable business model. Employee productivity crashes after just a few days of extended work hours. And we’ve known this for over a century.

Labor-rights activists in the late 1800s pushed for better scheduling at a time when most Americans worked long and grueling shifts six days a week. It wasn’t until 1926, however, that Ford Motor Company decided to bend to the unions and became the first major employer to create five-day weeks with shorter hours and better pay. It was a revolutionary decision, but worker production improved, forming the basis of today’s 40-hour workweek.

Most modern workers understand, however, that some high-stress, time-consuming jobs have the most pay-off in terms of paycheck and career development. While these are great goals to strive for, it’s important to also understand that the effect long hours can have on your productivity and mental state isn’t always worth the potential benefits.

Long days cause a lack of focus

Several studies have found that worker vigilance, focus and overall efficiency begins to fade after just a few hours of prolonged work.

As people become more mentally exhausted, their ability to work productively drops. Fatigue begins to slow the brain’s ability to make creative connections or remember facts which can affect a worker’s problem-solving and time management skills. Similarly, collaborative projects and interdepartmental communication suffer from shorter tempers and fried nerves.

On top of all that, long hours and back-to-back shifts interrupt a worker’s sleep patterns. This can cause long-term stress, anxiety and temperament issues that often disrupt personal lives, drain motivation and lead to career fatigue or burnout.

Shorter hours create a sense of urgency

In comparison, those who work less than the typical eight-hour day are more productive and create more profit for their employer. This is largely due to the sense of urgency around completing tasks within a shorter time frame: it lights a fire under workers who become motivated and more focused on their work.

Feelings of positive mental stimulation and empowerment also rise with shorter workweeks. Spending time away from work give workers a mental break that allows them to come back to the office well-rested, refreshed and ready to tackle the day’s issues. Ultimately, this should help them feel valued and impactful within the organization and boost their personal investment in its success.

Boost your own productivity

While it would be ideal to institute six-hour days nationwide, some industries or newer companies simply require more time from workers. If your business requires the occasional late night in the office, don’t rely simply on your office’s setting to stay productive. Make sure you’re finding creative ways to keep yourself engaged and effective despite long hours.

  • Take a nap.If you will be working a lengthy day, your brain and body will both benefit from a mid-shift, restorative nap. More effective than a normal break, napping will help you refocus your brain, improve your energy levels, and boost your motivation. If long hours are a pattern at your job, encourage your employer to build a nap room for workers– all it takes is adding some cots or comfy couches to a quiet room with sheets and easy-to-clean pillows.
  • Change your scenery.If you feel your focus beginning to wane, stand up and explore a new area. Whether it’s the break room, a local coffee shop, or just a different desk, changing up your seating can be a great way to refocus your brain and boost your creativity. Plus, walking around will help keep your blood flowing and improve your energy.
  • Make a to-do list.One of the biggest threats to personal productivity during long days is feeling unmotivated to complete projects. Instead of feeling overwhelmed and unenergetic, make a realistic to-do list that covers all of the tasks that you want to complete for the day. Then, cross the different tasks off as you finish them. This should help you stay productive and focused on your work while also helping you feel like you’re actually accomplishing things.

working long hours productivity

The times they are a-changin’

It will likely (and unfortunately) take some time before companies nationwide begin to recognize the benefits of shorter work weeks. Don’t lose hope, though. The sentiment toward long work hours and the research against it is becoming more widespread. It will begin to separate organizations that prioritize employee wellness from those that don’t. In the meantime, do what you can to remain productive at work and look after your own health and efficiency.

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