Everyone knows someone who is overworked.  Although we may like to think we live in the land of the long lunchbreaks, research shows otherwise – Australians are amongst the hardest working employees in the world, with one in five of us consistently working over 50 hours per week.  But working hard is good, isn’t it? It means that we’re more productive, and in turn the output of our organisation increases, and we all get great pay rises and careers opportunities and we all live happily ever after, right?

Unfortunately not.  As it turns out, overwork is not working.  So let’s take a quick look at why, then, we work so hard, and why, exactly, it isn’t working.  

Why do we work so hard?

Theories abound as to why we work so hard, with the default being ‘we have to.’ Usually, however, three core reasons are cited for our tendency to overwork, and they are:

Reason 1: Organisations effectively force their staff to work long hours

The most popular reason for working long hours, and the one that most people want to believe, is that our organisations, and more specifically, our managers, make us.  A culture of overwork, cascaded down from the C-suite, becomes deeply ingrained in the organisation’s culture.  From here, a chronic lack of resources ensues, and an attitude akin to hazing is produced, along the lines of – ‘Well, I did it to get where I am, so if you want my job, grin and bear it.’

Reason 2: Macroeconomic forces essentially control employees  

Although most would like to blame their organisations for overwork, the problem may be much broader than that.  Another reason posited for overwork is that, from an economic perspective, we expect perpetual growth.  As a result of this, organisations are forced to try to extract more and more value out of their employees, to ensure they remain competitive.  Evidence of this can be seen with the big four accounting firms – they all expect an equally high, and increasing amount of hours from their employees.  

Reason 3: Employees genuinely want to do long hours

The final reason suggested for why we work such long hours is the hardest to stomach – and that is – that we word so hard because we want to.  A combination of many factors, including ambition, pride in our work, a desire to find purpose and meaning, and the elusive promise of a pay rise or career progression often motivate many individuals to work long and hard.   And the pay-off? Often, they end up getting what they want – whether it be existential fulfilment, or a promotion.  So does that mean that working long hours is worth it?

In what ways is overwork not working?

Regardless of the driver for overwork, overwork is just not worth it – for the individual, or for the organisation.  

From an individual’s standpoint, overwork is, as many already know, associated with a swathe of health problems, including insomnia, depression, and heart disease.  However, there are other less-known side-effects of overwork, including the fact that too many hours make leading difficult by reducing your ability to communicate effectively and make decent judgement calls. Sacrificing sleep to work long hours is also hugely detrimental to performance – potentially cancelling out the career benefits of the hard work in the first place.

From an organisation’s perspective, overwork has even worse consequences.  So much for more hours translating into more productivity – a recent study showed that managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked long hours, and those that pretended to. Furthermore, longer hours quickly lead to burn-out, which in turn, leads to higher staff absenteeism and ultimately, turnover.  Finally, there is actually a negative correlation between hours worked and productivity – as unbelievable as it may sound, as hours increase, productivity actually decreases.

Given the complexity of overwork, there is no simple and quick fix – however individuals, and organisations, would be best placed to attempt to address the issue, in the name of productivity and profit.  

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