Work until you drop: how the long-hours culture is killing us

| January 12, 2019

Throughout history, working hours have shifted again and again. Yet, in Australia, the 38-hour work week has been the norm since 1986. It’s safe to say we are all in agreement that a lot has changed in the decades since, yet there’s been little to no push for another change in the standard workweek.

The long-hours culture isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. On the outside, it seems like an effective way to be more productive as a society. When businesses are working hard, the economy is surely improving as well. Or, so it seems. As a country, Australia is lagging behind other nations despite our long work hours.

In Sweden, there was a trial of a 6-hour working day over a period of 23 months. The reduced hours led to happier, more productive staff members. What does this mean about our current system? Are we heading to an early grave brought on by overworking and a poor work/life balance? Better yet, what can we all do about the lack of boundaries between personal and professional?

The Shift in Hours

As said above, working hours have always evolved throughout history. In April of 1856, Melbourne stonemasons famously protested their employers’ refusal to reduce the length of their workday. Their commitment to the cause paid off and led to Australia developing one of the more progressive labour environments in the globe in the 20th century.

The 8-hour workday became law in 1948, and thus the 40-hour workweek was born. However, there’s a reason to believe this isn’t the end of the road. While most Australians now work an average of 37.4 hours a week, this only applies to a percentage of workers. For instance, 30% of men and 11% of women report working up to 45 hours or more each week.

Not only is this unsustainable, but it’s also unnecessary. The rise of technology and the digital age has brought a new era of work. The majority of today’s work is no longer labor-intensive. That means there’s more creative thinking and problem solving, two things that can’t be sustained for 6 to 8 hours at a time.

A financial services firm put all their employers on a 5-hour workday without reducing pay. They wanted to discover if it was possible to meet client demands in those hours while giving their employees more time to themselves. The results were clear; Workers were more productive, more effective, and less prone to sick days and time off. It turns out the solution to burnt out, inefficient workers is to simply work your employees less.

The Dangers of Overworking

What’s the real risk of overworking your employees? While it might seem harmless to keep to the status quo of the 38-hour work week, there’s danger in the burnout. If you want to start a business that keeps the top talent in your industry, you need to treat your employees with kindness and humanity.

What is burnout? It’s a state of chronic stress characterized by both physical and emotional exhaustion. It leads to detachment from one’s work, and it keeps your employees from working at their full potential. When employees are overworked, they need more sick days. In other words, they cost more to the company.

It’s not just one overworked employee you have to work out. Burnout spreads like a virus through the office. It lowers the morale and efficient for everyone. The technical term for this is “social pollution” and it’s dangerous for your company. If you notice the signs of burnout in even one of your employees, odds are it’s time for a change.

Making a Positive Shift

The long-hours culture of today is slowly burning out our best workers. It’s making people stressed, inefficient, and unhappy. If you’re running a business, don’t you want your employees to be happy, productive members of your team?

Making a shift doesn’t have to happen overnight. You don’t need a drastic change to reap the benefits of the shortened work hours. Start with small things, like remote work or flexible hours. Read more here about a tool that makes flexible hours a breeze for both managers and employees.

From there, see what other improvements are possible. Perhaps employees will leave earlier on Fridays, or you’ll take extra long weekends throughout the year. Odds are, you’ll see productivity go up and unhappiness go down. Let’s face it, we could all use a break every once in a while. Your employees work hard, but that doesn’t mean they have to always work.