As Labor Day approaches, and a single day of rest from all the hours we Americans spend on the job is upon us, people can’t seem to stop talking about the crazy hours they work.
One of the most-read articles on the Wall Street Journal’s web site last week was a piece about how 4 a.m. — a time so ungodly there’s even a TED Talk about how surreal it is — has become the most productive hour for go-getters. Donald Trump has been endlessly knocking Hillary Clinton for sleeping (gasp!), calling out her lack of stamina as he brags about not needing much sleep and his former staffers say that vacations would “bore and perhaps scare” the GOP presidential nominee.
And then there is Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who said in a recent Bloomberg BusinessWeek interview that she regularly pulled all nighters when she worked at Google and can judge a startup’s chances for success by whether people are working on the weekends. “Could you work 130 hours in a week?” Mayer said, referring to the value hard work played in Google’s success. “The answer is yes, if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom.”
This has got to stop. No one, no matter what the upside may be, should have to be that strategic. The idea that being well-rested could be a black mark against a leader is preposterous. And even if a super early wake-up time works for some people — and they’re sensitive about sending out email before dawn — if you’re having to get up at 4 a.m. to avoid distractions in your day, there’s probably something wrong with how we’re working.
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Americans’ weekly work hours, on average, actually fall somewhere in the middle of the pack among developed nations. But four in 10 of us don’t use all the vacation time we’re allotted — which is far less than it is in most countries. Researchers have looked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey and found we’re literally trading sleep for work.
A Gallup poll found that 50 percent of people work more than 40 hours a week, and the average, nearly 47 hours a week in 2014, has been creeping up for years. The expectation of crazy hours is strong enough that one researcher found some men pretend to work an 80-hour week, even when they don’t.
Yet research, time and time again, shows the problems with overwork — on people’s health, on turnover, on absenteeism, on productivity. Studies have shown that after about 50 hours a week, productivity actually decreases, and it plummets after 55 hours, leaving no detectable difference between those who work 56 hours and those who work 70 — or 130, as Mayer suggested may be needed for successful startups.
That’s an absurd number of hours, translating into more than 18 hours a day of work, seven days a week. It’s illogical, given the research. It’s obviously unsustainable. And if that’s how we’re going to measure success in the workplace today, we’re in big trouble.
Some companies, of course, are looking for smart solutions. Aetna is paying workers up to $500 a year if they get 20 nights of at least seven hours of sleep in a row, using Fitbit devices to help them keep track. Boston Consulting Group has teams set aside “predictable time off,” covering for each other so they can be available to both their clients and their families.
And Amazon.com, which came under fire last year after a New York Times piece about its demanding work culture, will soon launch an experiment that sets up technical teams made up solely of part-time workers, earning benefits and salaries but at lesser pay. One key reason it could work: Managers of these teams will work just 30 hours a week, too. That could help prevent the “hours creep” that typically happens when part-time workers, supervised by people who work much longer hours, try to limit their hours in a 24/7 work world. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Managers, after all, are probably the biggest factor in changing our increasingly work-all-the-time world. If workers see people taking time off to coach their kid’s soccer game, or leaving by 6 p.m. to have dinner at home, they’ll feel entitled to do the same. But if they toil under someone who suggests that working on weekends is “a huge indicator of success,” or that working 130 hours a week is possible, they may feel compelled to emulate them.
Yes, success comes from hard work. And yes, CEOs paid millions of dollars or early startup employees who stand to reap huge rewards may choose to work 100-hour weeks. Entrepreneurs who can kick off at 3 p.m. if they start at 4 a.m. and aren’t expected to show their face until rush hour starts may love their early-morning routines. But they should be mindful that while oddball hours or absurdly long slogs at the desk may work for them, they also set an unattainable standard for many others.