The Perplexing Truth About Working Long Hours

A recent article in the New York Times detailing the arduous demands Amazon places on its employees has put a spotlight on the subject of working long hours.

The authors contend that Amazon, an amazingly successful company well on its way to become the world’s first trillion dollar retailer, is conducting a Darwinian experiment in “how far it can push its white-collar workers to achieve its ever-expanding ambitions.”

Thousand of readers responded to the article, many of them former employees at Amazon, describing the serious health and family problems they endured as a result of the never-ending demands of their employer.

Molly Jay, who was a high performing member on the Kindle team for several years was told by her boss that she had become  “a problem” when she started to cut back on her hours to help care for her father who had cancer. As Ms. Jay puts it: “When you’re not able to give your absolute all, 80 hours a week, they see it as a major weakness.”

Although the New York Times piece focuses on Amazon’s particularly ruthless approach to extracting more value and productivity from its employees, they are certainly not the only company expanding the boundaries of the white-collar work week. For many employees the notion of a 40 hour week is nothing more than a nostalgic relic from a bygone era.

The Amazon story highlights a fundamental business conundrum. Employers want optimal performance and happy, engaged and healthy workers. Employees want the opportunity to work for innovative, successful companies and still have time for themselves and their families.

So can employers and employees both have what they want? Or to put the question differently: how can employers maximize the productivity of employees without destroying them in the process?

The answer may be found in a growing body of research that indicates working long hours results in diminishing returns. Simply put, for most people, working long hours not only detracts from the quality of their personal lives, it does not result in more and better output.

Like most things in the realm of employer/employee relations, the complicated truth about long hours can only be understood through the lens of flexibility and communication.

While the research demonstrates that long hours are not a sustainable path to increased productivity,  long hours may be essential, at times, to achieving company goals.

And the contrary is true as well. Just because an employee has a temporary need to reduce their hours because of pressing family business doesn’t mean they can’t continue to contribute value to the organization.

Employers and employees have dynamic needs which fluctuate over time. Most organizations rely upon their managers and supervisors to communicate with employees in a way that fairly addresses both for the needs of the company and the employee.

If companies want employees who are flexible and motivated enough to work longer hours to meet urgent company needs, they must be prepared to let employees work shorter hours to meet urgent personal needs.

Finding the optimal balance requires employees to accommodate urgent employer needs and be  assertive about their personal needs when those become urgent.

Finding the optimal balance requires leaders who set clear priorities and drive productivity without making everything a priority.

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to ask 25,000 people “What discourages you most in your job?”

The answers I received overwhelmingly pointed not to long hours but to leadership behavior. Employees are discouraged by supervisors who do not listen to them and fail to treat them as individuals.

As one respondent put it: “Bosses who are more concerned about numbers and goals over the well-being of their workforce drive me to despair.”

In this age of 24/7 connectivity, organizational success depends more than ever on leaders capable of communicating with employees in a way which fluidly balances company priorities and personal needs in an equitable and sustainable manner.

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