How working too much actually decreases productivity

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As of the last couple of decades, it has become the norm for many companies to expect longer working hours, time spent after hours checking email and answering calls, and a devotion to work that borders being unhealthy. It’s one thing to work diligently for a company and do your best, but it’s quite another to dedicate yourself to work at the expense of family, friendships, sleep and personal sanity. 

Luckily, the tides are changing as companies look to science to rediscover what Henry Ford knew all along — overwork leads to a decrease in productivity, an increase in absenteeism and lowered employee morale — which in turn affects the bottom line. 

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How too much work decreases productivity

In economics, the law of diminishing returns is, ‘the decrease in the marginal output of a production process as the amount of a single factor of production is incrementally increased, while the amounts of all other factors of production stay constant.’

According to research, this law appears to apply to the relationship between employee productivity and hours worked. 

John Pencavel, researcher and professor of labor economics at Stanford University, says that working too many hours a week or for too many consecutive days leads to less productivity over time. ‘At 35 hours, an additional five hours to the length of the working week has consequences for the effective labor input that are quite different from an additional five hours starting at 48 hours,’ says Pencavel. He calls this a ‘highly nonlinear effect.’ ‘Workers need time to recover from work,’ he says. 

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Falling off the productivity cliff

Employee output appears to fall sharply after 50 hours, and then drops even more dramatically after 55 hours. In addition, an employee working 70 hours produces nothing more than someone working 55 hours, according to Pencavel’s study.

This might be disheartening news for driven workers who wear long hours like a badge of honor. But the CDC warns about the health effects of long hours, which have also been linked to absenteeism and employee turnover. 


Ken Matos, senior director of research at the Families and Work Institute think tank, says, ‘The simple reality is that work, both mental and physical, results in fatigue that limits the cognitive and bodily resources people have to put towards their work. When they are not thinking clearly or moving as quickly or precisely they must work more slowly to maintain quality and safety requirements.’

Employees losing sleep

In addition, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine are finding employees are trading sleep for work. People who slept six hours or less at night worked 1.5 hours more than others who got more sleep.

‘The evidence that time spent working was the most prominent sleep thief was overwhelming,’ said lead study author Mathias Basner. ‘It was evident across all sociodemographic strata and no matter how we approached the question.’

But the idea of implementing healthy working limits might be positive news for the American workforce. If companies create boundaries around work, they will reap the benefits of the most employee output per hour. Businesses could reduce costs so long as employees stopped working just before falling off the productivity cliff. 

Changing company culture

United Shore Financial Services, LLC is among a growing class of smaller companies attempting to reinvent company culture when it comes to long hours. 

Ahmed Haidar, who works in client relations at the company, says that by 6:05 the company’s parking lot is pretty much empty. Company leaders say their policy of a ‘firm 40’ hours of work per week makes employees more efficient, requiring them to focus while they are in the office. The policy also frees up workers to unplug fully when they leave. But, the company does require employees to devote their time completely to work while they are in the office, prohibiting breaks for Facebook and things like online shopping. 

‘You give us 40,’ said the company’s chief people officer, Laura Lawson. ‘Everything else is yours.’ The company’s CEO, Mat Ishabia commented that asking employees to work longer hours wouldn’t necessarily mean they would get more done. 

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has also been very public about making a point to be home for dinner, according to Russell Clayton, a management professor at Saint Leo University. 


Another company, myHR Partner Inc. says it has 663 applicants for three 40-hour week positions. It appear some employees are even willing to take a pay cut to be able to work only 40 hours.

Perhaps this trend will continue to become something more mainstream. After all, according to research, working a healthy number of hours will lead to a healthier, happier and more productive workforce. 

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