America's 55-hour work weeks ruin workers' lives and don't produce extra value for employers

Sara Robinson's written an excellent piece on the productivity losses associated with extra-long work-weeks, something that has been established management theory since the time of Ford, but which few employers embrace today. Americans are working longer hours than they have in decades, sacrificing their health, happiness and family lives, and all the data suggests that those extra hours are wasted -- resulting in hourly productivity losses that offsets the additional hours worked. Everybody loses.

It’s a heresy now (good luck convincing your boss of what I’m about to say), but every hour you work over 40 hours a week is making you less effective and productive over both the short and the long haul. And it may sound weird, but it’s true: the single easiest, fastest thing your company can do to boost its output and profits — starting right now, today — is to get everybody off the 55-hour-a-week treadmill, and back onto a 40-hour footing...

By 1914, emboldened by a dozen years of in-house research, Henry Ford famously took the radical step of doubling his workers’ pay, and cut shifts in Ford plants from nine hours to eight. The National Association of Manufacturers criticized him bitterly for this — though many of his competitors climbed on board in the next few years when they saw how Ford’s business boomed as a result. In 1937, the 40-hour week was enshrined nationwide as part of the New Deal. By that point, there were a solid five decades of industrial research that proved, beyond a doubt, that if you wanted to keep your workers bright, healthy, productive, safe and efficient over a sustained stretch of time, you kept them to no more than 40 hours a week and eight hours a day.

Evan Robinson, a software engineer with a long interest in programmer productivity (full disclosure: our shared last name is not a coincidence) summarized this history in a white paper he wrote for the International Game Developers’ Association in 2005. The original paper contains a wealth of links to studies conducted by businesses, universities, industry associations and the military that supported early-20th-century leaders as they embraced the short week. “Throughout the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, these studies were apparently conducted by the hundreds,” writes Robinson; “and by the 1960s, the benefits of the 40-hour week were accepted almost beyond question in corporate America. In 1962, the Chamber of Commerce even published a pamphlet extolling the productivity gains of reduced hours.”

What these studies showed, over and over, was that industrial workers have eight good, reliable hours a day in them. On average, you get no more widgets out of a 10-hour day than you do out of an eight-hour day. Likewise, the overall output for the work week will be exactly the same at the end of six days as it would be after five days. So paying hourly workers to stick around once they’ve put in their weekly 40 is basically nothing more than a stupid and abusive way to burn up profits. Let ‘em go home, rest up and come back on Monday. It’s better for everybody.

Yes, you can squeeze out some extra productivity with sporadic overtime pushes in the busy season (though the returns diminish -- 80-hour weeks aren't twice as productive as 40-hour ones), but if you turn "sporadic pushes" into business as usual, you're just paying for the same work to take place over more hours while destroying your workers' lives. You may not care about the latter -- not if you've got five more applicants lined up to take the jobs of the workers who drop at their desks -- but even so, why pay more for less?

Bring back the 40-hour work week (via Beth Pratt)

(Image: Luigi Antonini speaks with a foot-sore picketer during the Dressmakers' strike for overtime pay, as supporters look on., a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from kheelcenter's photostream)


  1. I hear people brag about pushing their employees to work long hours with little sleep and I feel like telling them,

    “Oh, so they did a half-ass job, then?  No wonder you contracted me to clean up this mess.”

    I learned a long time ago that I’ll get (at least) 4 times as much quality work done with proper sleep and breaks.

    Anyone with proper rest can make mincemeat of burned-out, corporate drones.  Yet another case of corporate America sleepily tripping over dollars to pick up dimes.

    1. On the flip side, I hear corporate employees bragging about their impressive salaries and, invariably, I soon discover that they’re working 60+ hours a week on a steady basis to earn them. I guess it takes a few years in the trenches before they realise that time is money, or at least apply some simple arithmetic. Often, by that time it’s too late — even more so during the Great Recession.

      1.  Sometimes in those offices, though, it is ‘all or nothing’ — you work the long hours and get the great salary, or you work regular hours but are never promoted and find yourself the first to be cut.

        1. That’s true, but someone needs to reach these business leaders and educate them.  They are hurting their employees and losing money.

          It’s stupid and it should stop.

          1.  Unfortunately, if most employers out there are like most employers I’ve worked for (and I suspect it is the case),  they are Always Right and won’t listen.

            Most bosses I’ve worked with ran their business and treated their employees exactly the way they liked to do it. They had access to the same information and numbers on how to improve work environment and productivity, but they didn’t implement any of it. They didn’t see accommodating the humans working for them as a win-win, efficient  business model, they saw it as bowing down to their employees and they couldn’t bring themselves to do that.

            Lots of power-tripping, so-called ‘alphas’ in high positions out there… They don’t take advice very well.

          2. Lots of power-tripping, so-called ‘alphas’ in high positions out there… They don’t take advice very well.

            Just like many other systemic problems, the best any of us can do is keep spreading valid information/facts and educating one another. If more and more business leaders learn they are literally losing money by overworking people, they’ll come around eventually. For many, we’re just at the educational stage at this point, unfortunately.

            Also, watch the movie “9 to 5” with Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dolly Parton. It addresses some of these issues including killing some of these people. ;D


        2. No doubt. Even so, the salaried employee making $80k per annum and working 60 hours a week is actually making less money per hour than the one doing the same job making $60k and working 40 hours a week — and having less time to enjoy the fruits of his labour in the bargain.

          Companies like the ones you describe create these “all or nothing” cultures for several reasons, but giving employees higher real wages or achieving real productivity increases aren’t among them. I’ve learned to avoid working for companies (and indeed entire industries that I fortunately didn’t have a vocation for) that have this culture.

          1.  To view it another way, working 60 hours without overtime pay is the equivalent of taking a 43% pay cut.

            Some time back, I had a director tell our department he expected us all to work 60 hour weeks regardless of any deadlines. The H1Bs proceeded to grind down and produce some of the shittiest code I’ve ever seen, while I continued to put in my 40 hours as agreed when I was hired until I found a decent job.

        3. I should add that your point about promotions and layoffs is a good one, but keep in mind that if a manager or someone in HR doesn’t like a given worker, there are a host of other reasons to hold them back or can them. For example, those “peer evaluations” that HR conducts now and then can be spun in all sorts of nasty ways to prove that a dismissal is “for cause.”

          Another anecdotal example: I have an acquaintance who’s an attorney in his early 50s with a family. Top tier law school, worked for 2 corporate firms his entire career, the last for a couple of decades. He worked those long hours you hear about and made partner in the second firm. Unfortunately, what he isn’t is a “rain-maker” (natural salesman who brings business to the firm), so when times got tight guess who was asked to leave (they don’t fire you outright in his situation).

          Put another way, putting in the long hours is only valuable insofar as it shows obeisance to the company or the boss. And even then they’ll throw you over the side if they need or want to, because loyalty in that kind of place is a one-way street.

    2.  Putting aside your hubris, when you’re on salary you are often asked to meet deadlines that are simply humanly impossible to meet in a 40-hour week. It doesn’t matter how much of a superstar you are. As a contractor, you can turn down those train wrecks. When you’re salaried, you either agree to suffer through it, or suffer the consequences of saying no.

      1. Putting aside your hubris

        You mean the part where I said I and everyone else works better when we get more sleep?


        when you’re on salary you are often asked to meet deadlines that are simply humanly impossible to meet in a 40-hour week. It doesn’t matter how much of a superstar you are.

        You assume too much, friend.

        I’ve worked salaried positions as well.  Including one at a bank where if we didn’t meet our deadline at a specific time every night, hundreds of thousands of dollars would be lost as time ticked on.  Normally after this time, there was some that would start screaming… lots of running around… panic would set in for some… seats drenched in nervous sweat…

        I was (by far) not the most intelligent person among my colleagues, but I was one of the only people on the floor that refused to work full-time (no matter how much they pestered me) and it gave me critical advantages.

        For example, I was able to get a full 7-8 hours of sleep every night.  Most of my colleagues did not.  I was able to get exercise during the day before work which included mountain biking, sex and sometimes surfing if I drove about 90MPH those days (which I did).

        Despite my terrible flaws in intelligence, I moved up where others collapsed under pressure and my creativity was fed through my lifestyle.  I received an award (oh don’t you hate the hubris?) for thinking out of the box and creatively tackling issues that helped raise revenue for the entire bank headquarters (and helped the planet to boot) and another reward for other creative work that helped operations that went far beyond the scope of my position.

        This kind of stuff got me in good with the top people (they like money) and it even gave me the power to remove someone from above me who was annoying me.

        I did all this because I got sleep and exercised.  There were people there far smarter than my dumb ass, but many of them were burnt-out, stressed out and flipped out.  They couldn’t think straight because they were generally exhausted.  The pay was great by my standards, so I was perfectly happy with my part-time salary and I occasionally did contract work during the day if I wanted to buy some computer shit.

        I used this sleep and rest thing to my advantage nightly.  I also sometimes spent my days thinking about ways to do my job better and applied those thoughts to the chagrin of some of my nemeses at work (banking can be cut-throat) and to the delight of the higher executives.

        When you’re salaried, you either agree to suffer through it, or suffer the consequences of saying no

        I said no and showed them through my actions why.  Worked out great for me.  YMMV, of course.

        Get some sleep if you can.

        1. Get some sleep if you can.

          You assume too much also, friend. I’m trying my best not to play the salary game anymore. It’s not easy though.

          I was responding to your anecdote where you said, “Oh, so they did a half-ass job then?” Maybe I’m the exception, but I never did a “half-ass job” when I was asked to fall on the sword for a company. I did the best I could with fucked-up situations and worked well even at 100 hour weeks. Of course, I always paid heavy emotional tolls for it. But I certainly didn’t have contractors coming in telling my boss I did a half-assed job.

          I hope no one who worked under such conditions heard you say a thing like that. In my experience, people that do shoddy work do shoddy work no matter how much or little time they have. But no matter how dependable a worker is, they will burn out. The employer’s answer is, “well workers are expendable and there’s another waiting to take this job.” And often they are right. They gain value because they can just replace the human battery when it has run low.

          Not everyone wants to or can be a contractor, and they shouldn’t be forced into sweatshop conditions in order to keep their job. This is going to have to come from government regulation.

          1. I never did a “half-ass job” … I did the best I could … and worked well even at 100 hour weeks. … I certainly didn’t have contractors coming in telling my boss I did a half-assed job.

            100 hours is 20 hours a day, Monday through Friday.

            Is this business still in existence? It doesn’t sound sustainable for the employees or the business.

            If you’re trying to convince me that you worked at your top potential working 20 hours a day, I’m not buying it. Anyone working 100 hour weeks may very well “do the best they can”, but it’s still going to be not even close to their potential. Hence, half-assed. But, maybe you’re an anomaly and gave it three-quarters ass under such duress. :D

            But I certainly didn’t have contractors coming in telling my boss I did a half-assed job.

            If you were working 20 hours a day, it’s obvious no one was telling your boss anything, including you. :/

            I hope no one who worked under such conditions heard you say a thing like that.

            Not unless people can read my thoughts. :D

            I wouldn’t work with such a place that works people 100 hour weeks, I’d call the labor board instead.

        2.  Hey! I’ve done 100 hour workweeks before!

          100 hours a week is also about 14.5 hours a day 7 days a week. I know that, because I worked at a job once that required that for a 6-month “crunch” period.

          And then, near the end of that period, I learned (then pointed out) the law in Illinois (where I lived at the time) allowed all employes — exempt or not — 1 day off in 7… which I then started to take, even during the remainder of crunch.

          Anyhow, that business isn’t around anymore. It was unsustainable, as you might imagine. The best managers can actually schedule and manage that schedule, versus browbeating and threatening employees to meet an unrealistic goal.

          (I am convinced that most managers are unwilling to take on the responsibilities of management, which include going to the higher-ups and telling them that… hey… Goal A won’t be achieved without Schedule B and Resources C-Z.)

          There’s nothing cool or awesome about working that much or that hard. And even if you think you’re giving your best during that time, it is inevitably worse than if you simply got some sleep, some additional R&R, and some exercise. Getting away from that sort of abusive work relationship is always for the best.

          And if more employees _did_ excuse themselves of those situations, then maybe… just maybe… the practice of _expecting_ such extraordinary effort might start to fade, finally.

          1. Jesus H… that sounds like it was horrible… Glad (but not surprised) the business went under.

      2. That’s the whole point.  The managers who give you consequences for saying no have neglected the lessons of the past and are hurting their companies, and agreeing to suffer through it isn’t helping you or them.

        If the task is impossible in a 40 hour week, it’s STILL impossible in a 50+ hour week.

  2. I’ve actually just changed jobs to an infrastructure position that, given time constraints, involves a lot overtime as we acquaint the cabling vendors with the multitude of sites they’ll be cabling in the next six months.  The differences compared to the article are that 1) we’re hourly, and get time and a half, 2) we have more than one aspect to our jobs including a nice, quiet time at the end of the day to summarize what we discussed and noted and to organize supplies and tools, and 3) the project, while long, will eventually end and we’ll return to 40 hours.

    Right now I’m happy with the extra time and money.  Eventually it’ll get old, but hopefully that’ll happen only closer to the end of the project.

    1. The hourly bit is key in your case — nothing focuses an employer’s or client’s mind like knowing they’re on the clock, at least when it comes to skilled and knowledge workers. Salaried work in those sectors (absent sales commissions or the like) is a mug’s game, with the Lumberghs of the world trying to squeeze out more hours for no other reason than to dilute the value of the wages they’re paying and play power games.

      On the other hand, for blue collar and service workers the hourly (minimum or near-minimum) wage structure is gamed mercilessly by corporate employers. You hear the same stories again and again about sparse but insanely long work shifts and unpaid labour hours, as the employer struggles to squeeze the most out of its “human resources” while avoiding giving them health benefits.

      1.  Agree. I’m salaried, and normally am ineligible for overtime, but occasionally it gets approved for special projects, and what do you know, manager suddenly become more interested in what we’re working on, why it is taking so long, and what they (as managers) can do to alleviate the burden.

        The worst overtime I’ve worked though is what I will call ‘cover your ass’ overtime. This is when the project could be completed in normal hours, but if were to fail to meet our goals, our boss doesn’t want to explain to upper management that he demanded anything less than the maximum from his employees. So we are required  to show up just to be there.

        1.  Also, I have friends in hourly work whose compliant is the opposite… they can never get enough hours to make ends meet, let alone benefits… and they WANT to work.

        1.  Yes, but it beats “human capital” which is the latest buzzword in my office.  They usually praise it right before doing something ridiculously unpopular that shows exactly how much they value us.

  3. Ever since my dot-com days back in the 90s, I’ve known that eternal crunch time is the sign of power-hungry and/or incompetent management. After all, one doesn’t have to study the history of time/motion studies or read “The Mythical Man Month” (not that many managers do these days) to grasp the concept of diminishing returns.

    I’m so glad I had the privilege of opting out of the corporate America and the Human Resources Culture, where the “butts in seats/look busy/be a team player” BS is the norm. And so sorry that so many Americans are stuck in it. I can’t see Sara Robinson’s fine article changing the minds of many MBAs, but it might give some good ideas to workers.

  4. Managers are reluctant to increase the number of regular permanent employees because benefits are so expensive – generally estimated as 20-25% of the employee’s salary.  There is more to profit generation than productivity gains.  If we could solve the healthcare cost problem, this problem would solve itself.

  5. Another great way to reduce productivity is to head to a KRS-One concert on a Wednesday night, get really drunk, turn up to work really hung-over and read Boing Boing all day.

    Not that I’m speaking from experience of course.

  6. This really burns me up.  Here we are, after half a century of increasing productivity, increasing corporate profits, decreasing workers’ incomes, and our political elite believe the solution is having everyone work five years longer, get no pensions, reduced health care.  Because old people have it “just too damn good” they say.

    21st century and people have to work LONGER, HARDER.  Six day weeks.  60 hour weeks, as if the technological revolution never happened.  These slimy SOBs stand up and say this stuff and just because they’ve managed to play on peoples’ fears and insecurities and (yes, sometimes) bigotry, they get away with it.  Use the power of mil-spec marketing on steroids.

    I blame old Supply-side Jesus, Ronald Reagan.  He played the media like a violin and scared everyone else to death.  Put a happy face on Kool-Aid jug and passed it around like some red, white and blue Jonestown.  If I believed in Hell, I’d hope he was suffering there.

    1. I blame in on overpopulation.

      If the world population was 1/6 of what it is now..less “human capital” more caring for the smaller worker pool, better benefits.

      Hard to care for a person in a job if they can replace them with 5 other people who will work for peanuts.

  7. In my (admittedly limited) experience, these studies were largely based around white Americans in a factory setting.  Other cultures may have different expectations about work weeks and work ethics, and may achieve different results in the same circumstances.

    For better or worse.

    1. Freelance. You can get 32 hour weeks with 3 day weekends; there’ll even be times when you’ll get 7 or 14 day weekends. Sometimes I had 31 day weekends.

      I miss freelancing.

      1.  You also get no health insurance. I wasn’t really fond of that part. In fact, that’s the main reason I left the country.

        1. Oh, I had health insurance. Really crappy, useless health insurance.

          I’d say leaving the country is pretty drastic, but I took a fulltime job at a huge corporate behemoth, so who am I to judge?

      2.   You also get no health insurance. I wasn’t really fond of that part. In fact, that’s the main reason I left the country.

        1.  Yep, this.  The 3-day weekends and controlled pace are great, although sometimes they turn into 20-days-no-contracts weekends and the rent becomes a big problem. 

          (Of course, I’m in the UK, so health insurance isn’t an issue. I’d never risk it if I lived in the US.)

  8. Looking for a software job now, I’m trying to think of a clever way to screen out companies that expect 10-12 hour days all the time – many are now aware of the outside stigma and claim “work-life balance” policies, but pay it lip service at best.

    Unfortunately, I suspect that skulking around the office after 7 PM to see whether everyone’s still there is frowned upon, from a misdemeanor trespassing standpoint.

      1. Watch out for companies that go on about “work-life balance”. It’s like salesmen who brag about being honest. If it weren’t an issue, they wouldn’t mention it. The craziest hours I had were at such a place.

  9. 55 hour weeks, only 2 weeks annual leave, $7-$8 minimum wage, the whole 99% thing – living the dream guys.

  10. …industrial workers have eight good, reliable hours a day in them…

    So this post concerns a very small portion of the workforce.

    Is there data on the vast majority of US workers, or is this a merely an interesting anecdote about the few remaining factory jobs.

    1. The article addresses the knowledge worker better than I’ve seen it addressed anywhere else. It captures both what I’ve experienced and read elsewhere to be true (that overwork hurts knowledge worker productivity as much or even more)  and the historical origins of the problem in technical fields (an expectation that everyone can match the work schedule of an entrepreneur or an engineer on the aspbergers spectrum, and a ‘churn and burn’ attitude to managing young employees).
       The group I work in has a strong overtime culture — meaning most of our salaried people work substantial overtime, programs are scheduled with that expectation, and promotion is limited if you don’t play the game. And the junior employees are definitely abused. I’m trying to break the cycle, but the seem to WANT to put in the extra hours. Likely, like me, they realize this is just the way the world works right now.

      1. The culture of insanely long hours for doctors is (possibly apocryphally) attributed to a very influential, coke-addicted medical school instructor about a century ago.

        1. Ah for the days of cocaine.

          Many trainees would argue that the pendulum has swung way too far in the other direction–No one but the insane argue for the return of the 140-hour intern work week, but I can tell you from the front lines: Modern guidelines, especially the new “intern-friendly” ones adopted this year, are driving interns almost as insane.

          Medicine, unlike most professions, involves 10-20 complex systems simultaneously breaking down and being subjected to multiple uncontrolled interventions. Managing this is hard enough for someone with almost no experience outside a few lectures and months on the wards. *Communicating* it every 8 or 10 hours to a new, equally green specialist-in-training in a way that captures and triages the key points is an absolute nightmare.

          Interns are running around in despair, cleaning up the mistakes of the shift before and trying desperately to wrap up their work (and by wrap up work, I mean simultaneously learn how to save lives and do it) before their program director yells at them for staying over their hour limits and jeopardizing the program.

          Medicine for trainees simply doesn’t lend itself to the traditional three-shift system. Sure it’s rough, demoralizes everyone, and even breaks a few people, but most of us are way more exhausted by hurting our patients than by working 20 extra hours a week. 

          To have eight or twelve hours to learn about new patients, figure out how to treat them, do it, and then sign all this out to a new team would be like trying to read someone else’s code to catch up on what they’d done the night before, debug, continue coding, and then explain it in such a way that they could continue the next night. Recipe for crashes, which is what I get all too frequently in the ICU with the new system.

          1. Most of the residents that I knew would jump at the chance to work extra in order to learn something new or to do something really meaningful.  But that doesn’t mean that they weren’t being used as cheap labor in a way that didn’t support learning or good medical practice.

          2. If doctors can’t hand off their duties after a reasonable-length shift, that’s a serious problem with the system. A given medical situation can go on indefinitely. Is it really better to have exhausted doctors working on patients? 

            I have a bit of a bias- I had an orthopedic surgery intern living in the apartment above me. TWICE he fell asleep while filling his bathtub before work and it flooded my apartment. The second time I knew what was happening and called him, and clearly woke him up, and he just said “oh, yeah- the water will stop in a second.”

            I have a close friend who is a doctor. She fell asleep at the wheel driving home a couple times (luckily it was late at night and no one got hurt).

            As other posters have said, it’s just a hazing ritual, maybe it’s the whole masochistic American thing. I dated a foreign doctor once who told me there was no reason for it, that it was just so doctors can prove they are god-like.

          3. Ha, my company has employees in so many countries that work goes on around the clock. Every morning I have to read dozens of emails about things that happened elsewhere in the world and try to pick up and run with it.
            Not to mention that any major meeting usually requires two sessions because there is no time of day that is reasonable for everyone. But I have lots of meetings that try to squeeze their way into the time when my train leaves. I choose to make my train, but I know others don’t like it.

          4. “Is it really better to have exhausted doctors working on patients?”

            That’s an interesting question, because it turns out the answer is non-obvious. There’s never really been a time when we’ve had the control group: non-exhausted trainees working on patients.

            So now we’ll see, and these new regulations are brand new. But the consensus among most trainees, and those immediately supervising them, is that they’re well rested and not nearly as effective.

            So there are two questions, as Antinous suggests: A practical one and an ethical one. Practically, how can we squeeze the best results out of this group of trainees? Probably the answer is going to include some measure of exhaustion others consider inhuman.

            Ethically, should we do so? A whole different issue–Our “unions” are really nothing of the sort and training programs enjoy an antitrust exemption that is too often used to benefit already-overpaid specialist attendings or bloated academic centers.

            However, since the original post discussed whether working more is actually counterproductive, the first question is more important here. And the answer is: We don’t know yet, but maximally rested trainees does NOT seem to be the way to maximize good outcomes. And most of us would far rather be tired and abused for a few years than to see our patients suffer .

        2. That (if true) is fascinating. Do you have any more information about said instructor that might help me narrow my search?

          1. I think it was Johns Hopkins, but I heard the anecdote about 20 years ago. Since I heard it from a surgeon, I’d guess that the person in question was the head of surgery.

          2. Thread fully nested so replying to myself.
   “William Halsted, the first chief of surgery at Johns Hopkins in the 1890s and a founder of modern medical training, required his residents to be on call 362 days a year (only later was it revealed that Halsted fueled his manic work ethic with cocaine), and for the next 100 years the attitude of the medical establishment was more or less the same. Doctors, influenced by their own residency experiences, often see hospital hazing as the most effective way to learn the practice of medicine.”

  11. For me, at least, flexibility in work hours is more important than the number of hours themselves.  I don’t do 55 hour weeks, but probably 50 hours is usual.  However, it’s not a 10 hour stretch.  I take breaks, read some Boing Boing, exercise, hang out with my kids…but then I get back to work.  I basically enjoy what I do (software programming) and I don’t have a boss breathing down my neck.

    I do think I am happier and more productive with my choppy 50 week than I would be if I were glued to my desk for 8 hours.

  12. There’s a sliding scale though. Where the average cut-off for diminishing returns to slip into negative territory lies for the average worker is VERY dependent on the type of work being performed. Personally speaking, it lies around the 35h/week mark when doing relatively complex writing/coding, but somewhere around the 50-55h/week if what I’m being paid to do is carry bags of gravel from one end of a driveway to another (mindless, repetitive, only slightly physically demanding, and involving stuff that will neither hurt if you drop it on someone’s foot, nor do any damage/result in productivity loss due to temporary loss of attention leading to errors).
    Therefore, it logically follows that every time a task becomes automated such that humans are only doing rote work, you get not only the obvious benefits of having to pay ’em less and train ’em less, but also the added benefit of having to swap ’em out less often, coz it’ll take longer to run ’em into the ground. Sigh. 

  13. There is most certainly a benefit for employers – not from increased productivity, but from investment theory.

    Take any asymmetric relationship, where one party is giving more to the relationship than the other. (Works just as well for romantic relationships as for employment relationships.)

    Who values the relationship more – the party giving more, or the party taking more? Objectively, the party taking more should value it more, because they get more out of the relationship than the other. But thanks to the quirks of human psychology, invariably, the party *giving* more considers it more valuable, for two reasons:

    (1) Their perceived value of the relationship justifies their past choices to give more (rather than admitting to themselves that the other party has taken advantage of them).

    (2) Having “invested” their resources in the relationship, their only hope for a payout of their investment is to maintain the relationship, rather than “cutting their losses.” (Conversely, if the balance shifts, the other party is more inclined to “quit while they’re ahead,” rather than giving more to pay back for the good times.)

    Employers routinely use this logic to devious effect. They demand great sacrifices from their employees *in order to guarantee their loyalty.* Of course, they have no obligations to reciprocate, and will fire any employee in an instant if it suits their business interests. (Yes, that’s the beauty of “at-will” employment.)

    1. If anyone has a good reference, I’d be interested to see a good article on the impact of ‘at will employment’ on both individual and corporate productivity. I was reading somewhere on business in Europe and the author was pointing out is much harder to fire people in some European countries, and that even new employees have a grace period — and this had the unintended consequence of making it even less likely that companies would take the risk of hiring young workers they might get stuck with if they don’t turn out well, and limiting company’s ability to prune ineffective employees. If this is true, ‘at will employment’ should help improve employment, since it reduces the risk the employer faces when hiring a new employee.

    2. One of the most fucked up quirks of the human psyche, but constantly observable.

    3. This is an exact description of my psyche, working towards my PhD and now in my postdoc in the physical sciences.  Profound.  Thank you for describing it so clearly for me.

      It’s difficult to break the loop, when you’ve already drank the Kool-Aid and have walked to the end of the plank.  Not much to do except jump off, but it’s difficult to weather the shark filled waters after having invested 8 years.

  14. I wish more bosses would be cool with telecommuting. Would make those 55-60 hour workweeks that we’re expected to put in now less harsh when I’m in my underwear and still churning away on some project or another.

    On an unrelated note, there is a trend towards salarying people who even work in fast food and other service sector jobs. Corporate bean counters figured out that grunts who would’ve otherwise qualified for time and a half in overtime can be put back in place with “salaries” of 20k a year even though they work effectively the same 50-60 hour workweek as before. So one of the ways that younger people/people who needed money used to make more money is now gone, because now you are “salaried,” and if you don’t like your 60 hour weeks making a 1500 a month we’ll find someone who will.

  15. At the hospital I work at it is hard for some people to get over time even if they really wanted it. They don’t want to pay you that time and a half if they can help it. I know some of the department managers watch those clock in/clock out times very closely to make sure there isn’t even ten minutes leaning either way.

    Our department isn’t like that and I typically work approx 43 hours a week.

  16. Two of my last four employers need to get their craniums out of their anuses and read this article.

  17. Why 40 hours?  What amazing piece of research said that was exactly the right number of hours?  I will literally bet you everything I own that a double-blinded test of productivity vs work hours does *not* come up with ’40 hours’ as the answer to ‘what number of hours of dedicated labor per week will produce the greatest benefits for the employer’ in any field where the intellectual capacity of the employee is the commodity being rented (the ability of the employee to move physical objects around without needing to think about it all is different).  Let alone the answer to the quite different question of ‘what will make the relationship between the person paying and the person being paid produce the most value for a) the person paying; b) the person being paid; and c) human society’.  

    1. It’s great that you didn’t just blatantly criticize, but provided actual insight into why you are so critical. You are right – anybody can use centuries worth of experience and research, or countless examples where an 8 hour day resulted in maximum sustained productivity and claim that 40 hours is a good idea. But it takes people with guts like yours to just step in and claim, plainly, that they think it’s bullshit. Especially because in your middle sentence (of a paragraph that, surprisingly, consists only out of three sentences) you display that you are off handedly discarding the entire industry that this measure was based upon while it remains the dominant industry of our days.

      It’s people like you who provide value in this society that is sometimes too full of idiots who do nothing but make noise and jabber on about their own bias and convictions that they never back up with anything but their own lack of editorial self-restraint. Of people who just throw their words into society like sand into the gears of a well maintained machine that could do so well without them. So, in that regard, I applaud your braveness and use of apostrophes.

      1. Put your money were your mouth is.  Caitifty bet you that you couldn’t come up with any substaniation of the claim and the best you managed was sarcasm.  Try harder.

        In addition finding the best work schedules for factory workers in 1920 is hardly going to be convincing evidence that 40 hours is appropriate for knowledge workers.

        The worst thing about all of the framing in this article is the idea that the 40 hour week was one by bosses.   It was won by workers.

        1. So I’m responsible for proving /his/ point? How is that supposed to work? There is plenty of both scientific and anecdotal evidence available to support the point that the article makes (another reply to his comment rightly points out that he might want to rtfa) – if you go through the trouble of looking. With Caitifty claiming right away that it’s his conviction that it is all BS, the burden of proof is on him.

          I’m self employed and have been for the past seven years. In many ways, I have the exact polar opposite to that factory job where you only “move physical objects around without needing to think”. My work is creative, challenging and highly enjoyable. I’ve overworked myself plenty of times well beyond the 8 hour per day horizon and had to pay a much higher price than I gained from it every single time. In the community of people that carry out similar work, it’s common to joke about people who think they can push out more work than that per day. They are the youngsters who don’t get it yet – they will, eventually, without fail.

          The only reason why it sometimes does work (and it sometimes works for me as well) is that I don’t have any workplace restraints to deal with and have all day to cushion a high workload. And still, like a clockwork, once I have pushed for a while, the push comes back and the tab at the end points in the same direction. Maybe it’s not quite 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week for every single human on the planet. But it’s a damn good rule of thumb.

    2. Value is a bit of a weasel word, really isn’t it? Do you mean ethically, semiotically and economically, or do you claim the miraculous ability to separate the three to mean only economically? Beats walking on water, anyway!

    3. “By 1914, emboldened by a dozen years of in-house research, Henry Ford famously took the radical step of doubling his workers’ pay, and cut shifts in Ford plants from nine hours to eight. The National Association of Manufacturers criticized him bitterly for this — though many of his competitors climbed on board in the next few years when they saw how Ford’s business boomed as a result. In 1937, the 40-hour week was enshrined nationwide as part of the New Deal. By that point, there were a solid five decades of industrial research that proved, beyond a doubt, that if you wanted to keep your workers bright, healthy, productive, safe and efficient over a sustained stretch of time, you kept them to no more than 40 hours a week and eight hours a day.”
      RTFA, mate.

  18. The film industry is famous for ridiculously long days (12-16hrs are not uncommon). Unions ensure everyone’s getting paid good overtime, but the human cost (most dramatically in lack of sleep and the dangers that can cause) is quite high. Renowned cinematographer Haskell Wexler made an excellent documentary on the subject a few years ago called Who Needs Sleep? It’s highly recommended. 

    1. True, but that’s on set. You have two or three weeks of that, followed by a break until the next gig. People in the industry I know do a lot of smaller gigs between movies (one is working at an amusement park, helping dress out a new roller coaster) but those long hours are only when you’re actually shooting.

      I don’t know of too many people who jump from gig to gig like that without any pause…

      1.  Some of us dotcom’ers do this. Company folds on Friday, break out the craigslist and rolodex, start new gig by Monday. Or in my most recent case, later that Friday. Too bad the unemployment benefits were gutted here in PA, I could use a vacation.

      2. True, but that’s on set. You have two or three weeks of that,

        How many features shoot in only two or three weeks?  Roger Corman’s shoot schedules don’t happen with movies with real budgets.  Most big theatrical movies shoot over a period of months.

        And dramatic television shows (not multicamera sitcoms) shoot on schedules similar to features: five days a week, with a baseline of twelve hours a day, which often goes higher.  The show I’m on now shot for 22 straight weeks between mid-July and mid-December last year (not counting Labor Day and two days for Thanksgiving), laid everyone off for two weeks (Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, Cratchit!), then works everyone for sixteen more weeks (not counting Presidents’ Day and Good Friday) until all the set crew is laid off for the summer hiatus around the last week of April.  Monday’s call time is usually 6:30 or 7:00 am.  Friday’s wrap time might be 9:00 pm, or it might be 5:00 Saturday morning, depending on how much night exterior shooting is required.

        I don’t work on set anymore; those long hours are a young person’s game, AFAIC.  Now I work in post production, and though this particular show works me for shorter hours than I’ve ever worked in my adult life, every other show I’ve ever worked in the last twenty years has been 50 to 65 hour weeks.  The miniseries of The Shining worked me for 70-80 hour weeks.  In the snow.  Uphill, both ways.

        Anyway, the 12-hour production day is the standard baseline for production scheduling.  Since the actors contractually need 12 hours off between each workday, if you work them more than 12 hours, you have to start later the next day, and that adds up to create a situation where the company has to start Friday’s work in the midafternoon, working through until Saturday morning.  Happens all the time.  Less often, a shoot day will go smoothly and wrap ahead of schedule.  But the schedule is always based upon a 12-hour day.  Long gone are the days when cameramen and grips all wore neckties, actors and writers were paid an hourly pittance with no residuals, and everyone was on their way home before 6:00.

    2. Unions ensure everyone’s getting paid good overtime … except the many wholly unpaid interns eager to break into the industry by assisting the employers and the unions through their contribution of unpaid labor. and it is illegal.

  19. One of the worst sectors for churn and burn is the non-profit sector, except the pay is awful. 

    My first job, fresh out of grad school, was as a researcher in a non-profit organization.  Everyone there was working constantly – late evenings, weekends.  At first I found it thrilling, I was being given projects that were huge and interesting.  My boss was a charismatic, dynamic individual who seemed to be one of us.  At the time my spouse was working in another outfit with roughly the same hours, so it all just seemed normal.

    It is a strength/weakness of my personality that I am capable of incredible bursts of intensive productivity when under pressure.  This is particularly the case if I am ‘responsible’ for something (i.e. my name is on the title page).

    One year in I started to wonder when the busy time was supposed to end so we could go ‘back’ to a regular workweek.  Two years in our workload had increased, and I began to realize that our boss never, ever actually did anything beyond breeze around acting confident and taking credit for the white collar salt mine she was running.

    3 years in I had a kid, which meant that working late and on weekends had a real cost.  Also, sleep was an issue.

    In the fourth year I realized I was the last man standing – everyone who had been there when I started had burned out/moved on/quit/retired.  Suddenly I was carrying a lot of responsibility, seeing the ‘new people’ get ‘temporary contracts’ that resulted in them being buried under a mountain of work.  Seeing people get sick, crash and burn as a regular thing.  And still crappy pay.

    Towards the end of the fifth year I hit the wall, took 3 months of sick leave (mostly accumulated overtime and holiday time).  5 minutes after I got back to my desk I knew I had to leave ASAP or lose my shit.

    I haven’t worked in an office since.  I never will again, at least not for someone else.  The place I worked imploded in the year after I left, with most of their clients ditching them (due to deteriorating work) and most of the staff jumping ship. 

    Overworking people is evil and pointless.  I’ll never get those five years back again, and they gave me a visceral, physical reaction to the concept of working in an office.

  20. If a great programmer is worth 30 times a good programmer, an intrinsically motivated person is worth 30 times a grudgingly present one. And there is only so long one can be intrinsically motivated about a single topic/task.

    Companies ignore the specifics of human nature at their peril.

  21. You guys should move up to Quebec, where leaving at 5 to go pick up the kids at the (government subsidized) kindergarden is the norm and non negotiable and nobody will even consider telling that employee to “make up for it” later. But, hey, we’re communists-frenchies-idealists…..can’t have it all

    1.  I would love to work at someplace like that but what if you don’t want to have kids? Are you penalized to stay late because you don’t have them?

  22. It seems like you’re working more than 40 hours a week lately Cory. Grammar errors in headings isn’t something I usually associate with your writing.

  23. I spent a few years in Germany and then moved back to the USA, where I was shocked by what a toothless glide Americans seem to work in. Work is a lifestyle in the US. There’s no exit, either in the short term (your work week) or the longer term (vacations, health insurance, parenting leave, decent retirement, ?). We Amis seem to close our eyes, slow down, and “gentle” the impossible choice we are faced with of living our lives on the job. German women working a few mornings a week got much more accomplished.

  24. I can’t help but think that the whole American protestant work ethic thing plays a role in this. It’s become a devil’s brew of wage slaves AND salary slaves, who, though they may complain much, secretly foster a machismo and/or Christian slave approach to their lot. This is what also results in huge swaths of workers voting against their own economic interests as if the cooperate overlords and 1% are the true keepers of the sacred instruments of self-flagellation that are graciously supplied to us so that we may demonstrate our fealty.

    I ended up becoming one of those poor souls Lenin wrote about – the politically educated worker and I spent way too many years pulling my hair out working side by side people who seemed hell-bent on swallowing whole their lot in life. Fortunately, I had no children, and as such have had much more leeway in flipping off the system and now have retired to a resigned state of I-no-longer-give-a-fuck.

  25. One of the best things the EU has ever done, IMO, is impose a 48-hour maximum work week. It caused much gnashing of teeth here in the UK, but hopefully it’s (slowly) diminishing the more-time-is-better culture here.

  26. Employers understand the importance of productivity, it is in their interests to do so, and not in their interests to have unhappy employees who resent putting their hours in. There are other incentive structures at work which produce long working weeks, and these are generally not the malicious desire of employers to exploit others – particularly if the results reduce their bottom line. Two important factors are:

    1) Precarity of contractual structures. The more short-term and insecure a supply contract, the more difficult it is to deliver this with a dedicated cohort of staff. I know people in the construction industry who are planning $20m buildings with contracts that have pause clauses every 3 months on contracts that stipulate that no services can be sub-contracted. In a situation like that it is very difficult for an employer to manage this without overtime. In more competitive times folk can demand more for less so contractual conditions always become more onerous. This is something employees are rarely in a position to understand.

    2) Similarly, when a company operates in an fluctuating market (an which market isn’t these days), then the demands of fixed employment terms, severance pay etc. make it more difficult to employ exactly as many people as you need when demand is at its highest, because you can assume that next week will be different.

    3) Complex supply chains incentivise exploitation, particularly in a difficult economic climate. The Apple iPhone debacle is a case in point.

    4) Staff cohorts who are smaller and working longer or precariously employed are more reactive and flexible and therefore attractive to clients who insist on being able to behave badly. Again the iPhone is the best example. The cost of making it in the Us would have added only around $6-10 to the production price, but it was the flexibility of Foxxcoms production which clinched it for Lord Jobs, because it allowed Apple to change designs right up till the last minute (basically to be as irresponsible as they wanted in the design development), safe in the knowledge that their suppliers could deliver anyhow by hiring and firing, getting ewveryone top pull all-nighters and the rest. It’s decisions like this, that Jobs recounts without the slightest regret or irony, that show his true colours.

    1. ” employ exactly as many people as you need when demand is at its highest”
      That’s the problem right there. Employment shouldn’t be used as an adjustment variable.

  27. Everytime I talk to people from the US, the first thing they want to hear about is our holidays. And, be they retired, students or anything in between they get this wistful look saying “why am I wasting my time this way, I could do so many things in my life”.

    In France we have chosen to work less and other countries rib us for it (the British are the worst, but look how so much better off they are…), but we are among the most productive workers out there. It’s a societal choice, and if we really asked workers for their advice we would have all kinds of surprise.

    1. To be fair we might say a lot but we also have pretty good holidays ourselves, i have 32 days and 8 public holidays, and i work four days a week, for eight hours, so it’s not all as you might believe by the red tops and the stats… ;)

      1. France has $36,500 GDP/Capita and works 1,453 hours per year. This equates to a GDP/Capita/Hour of $25.10. Americans, on the other hand, have $44,150 GDP/Capita but work 1,792 hours per year. Thus Americans only achieve $24.60 of GDP/Capita/Hour.Read more:

  28. The problem is very simple, but, alas, almost certain insurmountable.  It’s called “people”.  
    What has made human beings generally successful is that we have very strong hierarchical social structures.  Someone above tells those below what they need to do, and they do it.  This applies from countries right down to families.  (I happen to think it is a disastrous way to run things but alas the element of greed in human nature pretty much defeats more co-operative or communal systems.)

    The mistake is to presume that somehow the skills for knowing what to do come automatically along with getting to the level that entitles you to start telling those below you what to do.  That a “manager” has, by definition, to be on a higher hierarchical level to the “managed”.  
    But management skills are like other skills – some people have then innately, some people can learn them, and some people are simply unsuited to them.  And yet when promotion comes, somehow it is assumed that management skills magically materialise.  There are other issues: for instance, the continued assumption that “it works for me so therefore it will work for you so just do it that way” which is the root cause of a lot of stress and tension when it doesn’t, but that’s not just a management problem.

    A certain amount of this echoes the child abuse cycle too.  If you were abused as a child, then the probability of growing up to be a child abuser – or even just a bully – is huge.  Breaking out of the cycle is a very, very hard thing to do because it feels as though you are the only one being hurt.

  29. And this, right there, is why I will never work in an office, God willing.

    And I’m from a country where the official maximum work-week is 35 hours. Yep, you heard that right.

    It’s also interesting that one of the article’s main source is a white paper made for the International Game Developers’ Association. The gaming industry is notable for its huge workloads and long hours (see Tales from the Trenches, or the LA Noire/Team Bondi debacle).

  30. Something I haven’t seen addressed yet…

    One of the problems, in my opinion, is how productivity seems to be measured.  As near as I can tell, they determine an organization’s (company, division, office, whatever) productivity by dividing the economic output of the organization (not sure if it’s revenue or profit they use) by the number of employees. 

    Thus, we get the ‘doing more with less’ attitude which says it’s better to produce the same output with 4 employees at time-and-a-half, than with 6 at standard pay;  the attitude that layoffs increase the stock price; and other ideas.

    Please feel free to add details or corrections to my thinking above,  I’m interested.

    1. Well, the point is precisely that past 40 hr/wk (or 8 hr/d), productivity stops growing, then starts falling off. So your 4 time-and-a-half employees will be exactly as productive as the 6 full-timers for (according to studies) between one and eight weeks, and then global productivity will fall, however you measure it.
      See and the linked studies for background.

    2. “Please feel free to add details or corrections to my thinking above,  I’m interested.”


      Questions have question marks at the end of them.

  31. I would love to see this study repeated for the scientific researchers out there.  I worked 80-90 hours a week for a crazy professor through grad school, now work the same in my postdoc as jobs are few and far between.  Salaried, and very poorly salaried at that.  Yet this is the norm for those in the sciences.  I hear far too often criticism of those leaving at 6pm, that “they just don’t love it enough”.  And there are always repercussions, often subtle, in the highly competitive atmosphere.

    For an extreme example see: 

    David Stein’s post above concerning the asymmetric relationship between employer and employee could not be more accurate concerning the relationships I’ve had with my professors.  The science training systems are broken.

  32. On the other hand, if you don’t get obsessed with having the newest car, exotic vacation stories, and a 13-bedroom house you can plan to take a year off every now and again. Priorities.

  33. No one has said “non-exempt” or “working class” here. For the vast majority of full time employed Americans, the work week has fallen below 35 hours. There are also the underemployed who would love to work a whole lot more hours, even at rather crummy jobs. Who are these people? They are the non-exempt, the employees who are paid by the hour, the ones with the stagnant and falling hourly wage and the shorter and shorter work week. Check out the numbers or look at one of the HANES studies at They are out there.

    At least a few commenters here are non-exempt, but most seem to be exempt which means they are paid monthly or biweekly, not by the hour. A marginal hour of their time costs their employer nothing, so their work week has been rising. What do you expect? Has anyone considered a nationwide network administrator’s or software developer’s strike? Would anyone notice?

    In the old days, like the 1920s or the 1970s, they used to divide the great American middle into the working class and the business class, basically the non-exempt and the exempt. Then, they convinced everyone that everyone, from Ann Romney down to the part time janitor at the fast food joint, that they are all middle class and that their interests are aligned. This may even be a side effect of prior class warfare, because by the 70s, a lot of the class distinctions had vanished. Well, they’ve come back in force, but even begging for a scrap from the table now is denounced as “class warfare”. Well, it is. I’m just sick of the “how dare you fight back” attitude prevalent.

  34. The management class doesn’t care.  If they can make $1B working people to death or $10B being humane about it, history shows they’ll choose the former every time.  Occasionally a weirdo like Henry Ford will be more concerned about the bottom line than projecting social power, but such is rare.

  35. People wouldn’t need a 55 hour work week if they actually worked instead of surfing the net, being on their phone, youtube, facebook, etc… So I say remove the stuff that takes away from work, then 40 hours of work will actually be work.

    1. Um…. You’re describing the problem not the solution. Burnout is why people piss away time. And they would get more done if they felt they could leave at 40 hours. I and others lose hours to defending ourselves from weird headgames at work, including things like the “You’re leaving already!” b.s., or “Look at this mistake I made. How did you let that happen?” etc. It all takes time.

      Maybe I should restate – you’re describing the way people SOLVE the 55 hour problem. So your solution doesn’t actually solve the problems people ar eneeding to solve, I would bet.

      1. So let’s just lower it down to 40, because somehow that will stop people from surfing the net. Considering most people I know start surfing the net within the first couple hours of getting to work, it’s not how they solve the problem of being worked too much, it’s how they avoid work. Even those that work 40 hours or less still end up surfing the net, so their 40 hours a week is really closer to 35 hours of real work. That’s not the solution to this supposed problem, most people don’t work 55 hour work weeks. 

    2.  So, everyone of the people working these 55 hour weeks are in offices with computers.?

      Grow up.

      1. No but the US is a service industry now, so most people are. We don’t have as many blue collar jobs as we used to, many of those industries have been outsourced. But let’s consider blue collar jobs for your sake.  They have social aspects, stopping work for 15 to 30 minutes at a time to shoot the shit so to say. Or there are people sitting around doing nothing, waiting for someone else to finish so they can start their task. Also many of those non-office jobs tend to be hourly, so even if someone works 55 hours, they’re getting paid for those extra 15 hours.In regards to this article though, they specifically mention programmers, so that’s why I mention the computer jobs, because it’s the context of the article.

  36. I’d also ask of these people complaining how many people are hourly vs salary. Because at least with hourly you get paid for those extra 15 hours… Salary you might not, but then there are those weeks where you end up working under 40 hours..

  37. In general, loved the article! However I was confused by this comment, in the final section:

    “And it hurts the country, too. For every four Americans working a 50-hour week, every week, there’s one American who should have a full-time job, but doesn’t. Our rampant unemployment problem would vanish overnight if we simply worked the way we’re supposed to by law.”

    If those four Americans are getting the same amount done in 40 hours per week (thanks to their new found productivity) and being paid the same amount, how will this create a fifth job?

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