Longer Hours Doesn’t Mean Higher Productivity


UK economic growth is being held back by a productivity crisis.


UK economic growth is being held back by a productivity crisis. This is a recurring news story that runs on a monthly basis, usually coming from the Bank of England.

As we spend so much time talking to investment banking analysts, most after a few months will have tales of 20 hour work days, breakfast, lunch, and dinner “al desko”, with life being lived under artificial lighting rather than in the real 3D world. And it doesn’t stop at analysts, climb up the ladder, and few professional parents make it home for bathtime. I know I don’t. A quick google on working longer hours plus productivity throws up a long stream of headlines denouncing long hours as counterproductive.

An Institute of Employment Studies review of the research literature found that long work hours, especially when coupled with sleep disruption, caused deterioration of task performance because it had detrimental effects on such things as rates of error, pace of work and social behaviour. Numerous studies have linked long working days with health problems, which manifest themselves in absenteeism and high turnover.

I have often wondered if I am the only one in the City who doesn’t share Thatcher-like abilities to forgo sleep. My 6.30am start often makes me feel woefully inadequate as I receive teasing messages from friends who have already manage to fit in a 10km run before hitting their desk at 7.30am. But in reality only 1-3% of the population can manage on 5 or 6 hours sleep without performance suffering.

Many of us who think we can, are to put it bluntly, deluded. Deep down we all know it’s unhealthy, we all know we’re not really being productive as we sleepily check our emails over a coffee at 7am, or put the final touches to a presentation at 3am. I think there’s a little of the ‘essay crisis’ culture left over from university.

A sense of self-importance and pride that we are needed at work, the security of being at work with our colleagues can mask loneliness or problems at home, and of course workplace culture, which so often rewards and incentivises long hours. Personally, I’d like to run a slick outfit where people focus and concentrate during the day, but get out earlier.

Yes, there are often going to be times when a deadline needs to be met and we’ll need to put in a shift into the evening. It happens. But if we actually examine our working day, I think we’d be surprised how many distractions there are. Surveys suggest that millennials can spend up to nine hours a day on social media platforms. The constant phone checking is a massive distraction and a productivity drain.

It takes self-discipline and some self-awareness to examine how we spend our work days and to then want to rectify it. Personally, I try to have a regimented working day. Most hours are accounted for. I don’t surf the net and rarely read websites during the day. Studies have frequently shown a marked decrease in productivity the longer the number of hours worked.

The Greeks are some of the hardest working in the OECD, working approximately 600 more hours per year than the Germans, yet the Germans are 70% more productive. As managers it’s easy to explain to people that they’re often being inefficient but hard to get patterns of behaviour to change. But I think we have a duty to persevere. It’s a bubble that should be burst.

And according to Haldane at the Bank of England, it will lead to greater productivity. So a better life and a better business. What’s not to like? If you have any tips on how to create greater productivity in the workplace, please feel free to drop me an email.

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