40 hours, 40 years

by Katrina on March 27, 2012

The number 40 has been on my mind a lot lately.

For one thing, I’m turning 40 this week. You would think I’d have had ample time to prepare for this milestone, but somehow it snuck up on me like the Norwegian rat that once scampered across my kitchen floor at 6 o’clock in the morning. Ew! How did he get in here?

The other reason I’m thinking about 40 is this Salon story my cousin sent me (Thanks, Logan!) called “Bring Back the 40 Hour Work Week.” It describes research that proves long hours “kill profits, productivity, and employees.”

Since your boss probably hasn’t read the story, and chances are you’re still stuck, like so many Americans, working 50 or 60 hours a week, and since that leaves you very little time to read anything except this blog, I will share the highlights here:

  • Most people assume that if you increase your hours by, say, 50%, you will get 50% more work done. Not true.
  • Study after study shows that for industrial workers, productivity dramatically decreases after 8 hours a day.
  • Knowledge workers (people like me and most of my friends) have only 6 good hours of productivity a day. After that, we are cooked noodles.
  • Studies also show that when companies reduce workers’ hours back down to 40 per week, their businesses become “significantly more productive and profitable.”

Sometimes there are short-term gains when people work 60 or 70 hours a week. However, the risk of burnout begins after one week:

Without adequate rest, recreation, nutrition and time off to just be, people get dull and stupid. They can’t focus. They spend more time answering e-mail and goofing off than they do working. They make mistakes that they’d never make if they were rested; and fixing those mistakes takes longer because they’re fried…[Some software teams] descend into a negative-progress mode, where they are actually losing ground week over week because they’re so mentally exhausted that they’re making more errors than they can fix.

Despite 150 years of research proving that working long hours is bad for everyone, Americans now work some of the longest hours of any country in the industrialized world. Shouldn’t we know better?

The author blames this on a culture problem created by a bunch of geeky, anti-social, workaholic software programmers from Silicon Valley who were upheld for their “passion” and made not working on the weekend seemed terribly old-fashioned.

Personally, I found that trying to work the minimum 40 hours when I was in that sleep-deprived first year of motherhood was impossible. And now that I’m sleeping through the night again, 40 hours is manageable, but I vastly prefer 30 or less. (Of course, that goes for my age as well.)

What’s your experience with working long hours? How many “good” hours do you have, before you are (as my friend Joan would say) “working stupid”?