Overwork Doesn’t Work; By Niall Purcell

In 1930 John Maynard Keynes suggested in his essay, “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren”, that technological advances would allow people to work just 15 hours per week by the year 2030.


Barring serious upheaval in the next 12 years, Keynes has been proven incorrect. Whilst the average work week declined throughout the 20th century, extreme working hours have been on the rise in Western nations. The number of people working more than 48 hours per week in the UK has risen by 15% since 2010, and the proportion of people doing unpaid overtime is now at its highest ever level – amounting to 2 billion hours or the equivalent of 1 million full time jobs.

The facts

For some time now, evidence has been piling up that more hours do not equal more output. In other words, overwork doesn’t work!
Henry Ford found this when he reduced the work week of employees from 6 to 5 days and output increased. The British government discovered this at the height of the first world war. A committee was instructed to advise on how to maximise munitions factory output; the committee concluded work hours should be reduced. Finally, a large American consultancy found this when a study by Boston University found managers could not tell the difference between employees who worked 80 hours a week, versus those who just pretended to. Managers would penalize employees who were transparent about working less, but the study couldn’t find any evidence that those employees accomplished less.
The Greeks are some of the hardest working in the OECD, clocking over 2,000 hours a year on average. Germans are comparative slackers working around 1,400 hours each year. But German productivity is 70% higher. In the UK today, despite people all over this country working longer hours, productivity has barely increased since 2006 and we languish bottom of the G7 in terms of growth. It takes a German 44 minutes to match the value of a British working hour.

So what happens when we’re overworked?

The reasons behind the drop in productivity people experience with increasing hours are complex. First, sleep deprivation can have detrimental effects on performance. People who average 4 to 6 hours of sleep per night for just a couple of weeks show cognitive performance deficits equivalent to having no sleep at all for 72 hours. Secondly, motivation can wain as stress leads employees towards depression. Staff putting in 11 or more hours a day at the office are twice as likely to suffer a severe bout of depression than those working 8. Finally, we may find our health deteriorating. People who work 10 or more hours per day have a 60% higher risk of heart-related problems, including heart attacks, angina and cardiovascular disease.
These factors impact the bottom line of companies through absenteeism and employee turnover. The total bill UK organisations pay for work absence each year is just shy of £29 billion. Work-related stress, depression and anxiety is a large contributor, accounting for 12.5 million working days between 2016-2017.

What about managers?

For management, the case for “getting a life” is even stronger. Research by the ILM found that 94% of UK managers work over their contracted hours each week, with two thirds feeling under pressure to do so. Many Fora members may have read Marshall Goldsmith’s influential book “What got you here won’t get you there”. Goldsmith argues that many of the behaviours that propel high-achievers up the corporate ladder are paradoxically the same ones that prevent them from reaching the very top. These traits include “winning too much” (the need to win every workplace disagreement), adding too much value (adding opinions in every discussion), and goal obsession (fixating on short-term goals and losing sight of the big picture). To this list we can add “Failure to disconnect”.
When you first enter the corporate world, working overtime helps get you noticed. However, the skills needed early in your career are very different to those needed higher up the ladder. Early in your career, the primary measure of your performance is how well you manage yourself, higher up it’s about how you manage others. Where you previously relied on technical skills, your success now depends on interpersonal skills. The problem? When we’re lacking energy we misread those around us – happy faces appear neutral, neutral faces look like frowns. What’s more, we find it harder to resist lashing out at colleagues – we are more likely to act upon our incorrect perceptions.
In conclusion, long hours damage your health, happiness, productivity, ability to lead and the finances of your company. To change attitudes and behaviour is difficult, but in the coming months I hope you all find some ways to save time and add a little more life to your work-life balance.



Niall Purcell works for Imitor Graphica (IG), a design agency focused on saving companies time. IG save clients including Schroders, Virgin, MACE Group and Stagecoach tens of thousands of hours per year and have partnered with Fora to offer their services to members at a discounted rate. For more information, keep an eye on the benefits section of the Fora app.