Why Working Long Hours Should NOT Be The Norm

Photographed by Gunnar Larson.
Earlier this month, Uniqlo announced a four-day work week for its full-time employees in Japan. Such a shift still seems like a pipe dream for plenty of Americans. But, the research behind cutting down hours makes sense: Flexibility breeds productivity and health.

According to past studies from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (as reported by the Harvard Business Review), overwork — and the stress that comes with long hours — can lead to impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, and more. Recent research analyzing 600,000 individuals worldwide linked longer work hours to a higher risk of stroke.
Health concerns aside, research has proven time and time again that fewer hours increases output — even as far back as the early 19th century. When unions pushed to limit workdays to 10 hours (and subsequently, eight), management found that productivity increased. This model was then adopted by Henry Ford, who doubled his workers' pay in 1914 and gave them eight-hour shifts instead of nine.

In the October 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Leslie Perlow and Jessica Porter documented an experiment in which they forced consultants to either take a full day off or stop working entirely after 6 p.m. They found that breaking the 24/7 work cycle created more engaged, efficient workers who were more open to experimentations.

"When people are 'always on'... There is no impetus to explore whether the work actually requires 24/7 responsiveness," Perlow and Porter wrote. "To the contrary, people just work harder and longer, without considering how they could work better."
Still, with The New York Times' takedown of Amazon's intense work culture, it's safe to say that plenty of companies aren't taking work-life balance seriously. As Dustin Moskovitz (co-founder of Asana and one of the co-founders of Facebook) reported recently in a post on Medium, some companies specifically serve dinner in order to get workers to stay late.

"I also hear young developers frequently brag about '48 hour' coding sprints," Moskovitz writes. "This kind of attitude not only hurts young workers who are willing to 'step up' to the expectation, but facilitates ageism and sexism by indirectly discriminating against people who cannot maintain that kind of schedule."

There will always be outliers, for sure — the 1-3% of the population who can operate on five hours of sleep without seeing performance drop. But very few people are actually part of that elite superhuman group, and burnout is very real. As Moskovitz writes, with a better work/life balance, "I believe I would have been more effective: a better leader and a more focused employee." And the research is there to prove it.

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