The Hard Work Paradox - Do longer hours really mean more productivity?

I hate early mornings! But, for whatever reason, I feel a little uneasy admitting that.

I think it’s because many people share the idea that those who prefer to sleep in are less productive, lazy, or lack work ethic. In corporate settings in particular, not sleeping has become a badge of honour. Employees love to brag about ‘burning the candle at both ends’, signalling to their peers that they have been working so hard they have even postponed sleeping!

Here’s what’s concerning about that: researchers at Oxford University and the Royal Society for Public Health have found that 17 hours without sleep reduces alertness as much as having a blood alcohol level high enough to be considered legally drunk. In other words, the effects of moderate sleep deprivation on alertness are comparable to those of being intoxicated.

Why do we put people on a pedestal for walking around the office in a state similar to intoxication?

So, if sleeping less actually makes employees less productive, why has the business world become so preoccupied with not sleeping? Why do we put people on a pedestal for walking around the office in a state similar to intoxication? The most common response is that sleeping less allows one to work more.

However, this simply isn’t true. The time gained by sleeping less is likely not spent on productive work tasks. What exactly are workers doing with all this extra time? The answer: not much! A study by Kansas State University showed that when the average worker is on the internet they spend 60-80 percent of their time ‘cyberloafing’ on non-work activities such as scrolling through their Facebook newsfeed.

If we stop and think about this, it is a perplexing situation. Many of us would love more time off work, yet we voluntarily spend enormous amounts of time at work, not working. I like to call this the ‘hard work paradox’. So why does this happen?

Here at Diversity Inclusion, we spend a lot of time working with organisations to help them uncover exactly why work cultures of long unproductive hours emerge. This is often referred to as a ‘presenteeism culture’.

It seems likely that presenteeism cultures emerge out of the difficulty in reliably assessing good work performance. Working long hours is rewarded by managers because they intuitively feel like this is related to competence, productivity and success. As a consequence, the behaviour of spending time in the office becomes the focus, rather than the actual outcomes it is thought to be related to.

As I like to say to managers, people are naturally innovative. If you either implicitly or explicitly reward long hours, people will find innovative ways of spending more time in the office, or appearing to spend more time in the office, without necessarily doing more work. For example, making sure their car is still in the car park when their boss leaves the office – a sound routine for promotion!

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Unfortunately, rewarding employees who do long hours leaves some individuals at a severe disadvantage, particularly those with caring responsibilities, and individuals returning from parental leave. Diversity Inclusion's new program Thrive Career+Child assists organisation's to understand and address cultural barriers to flexible working such as a 'presenteeism culture' (visit to learn more).

If the outcome of work is rewarded, regardless of the amount of time spent on the task, people are incentivised to find innovative ways of getting more work done. Ultimately, rewarding the outcome of work leads to innovations that actually contribute to meaningful productivity gains within a business. And we can all finally get a good night’s sleep.

Brigid EmmettComment