You Work Too Much: How a Longer Workweek is Costing Us All

work too much
Photo: Oatsy40 via Flickr

The 40-hour workweek? In the United States, it’s a myth. In fact, most Americans actually spend nearly a full work day more than that at their job. And the worst part is that all of that work isn’t adding up to more creativity, productivity — or more money in our collective pocket.

According to a Gallup poll, nearly a quarter of Americans actually log closer to 50 hours per week of work, and more than half work at least 47 hours. 18% of workers say they’re on the job more than 60 hours per week. These long hours are statistically much more common for salaried (versus hourly) workers, which means those employees aren’t getting compensated for the extra work. Over the course of a year, on average, Americans are giving up more than 300 extra hours of their time. So what gives?

The perception that spending more time at work means a more dedicated, productive employee is a pretty common one; who hasn’t done the 5pm stakeout, waiting to see who in the office will be the first to get up and actually go home, despite the fact that no one has probably been doing anything work-related for a considerable amount of time? Unfortunately, it’s also completely incorrect — so all of this extra work doesn’t really add up to much at all.

The problem with these long hours is that it doesn’t leave room for any kind of actual work-life balance, which is not only vital for employee happiness, but also makes us better workers. Happy employees statistically work harder and more effectively than those who hate or resent their jobs — which it’s hard not to do if you’re there an extra 20 hours every week. Not only that, but adding more hours can also take away from brain function. Staying late at work has been shown to make workers less creative, because it doesn’t give them enough time to power down after a long day of using their brains. And actively taking time off and allowing your brain to idle for a while is a recommended strategy for refreshing creativity and productivity.

It’s not as if we’re balancing out those long hours with ample time off, either — Americans get the least paid vacation of anyone in the world.

Unfortunately, the American workplace has come to all but demand longer hours, and among employers, there’s still a large degree of hesitation about potential solutions like flexible work hours, and the option to work from home (something 70% of Americans have said they’d like as an option). And truthfully, who can blame them? The bosses of the world are getting loads of hours out of employees essentially for free. However, all of those hours probably aren’t actually making the company any money; companies with happy employees tend to be more profitable, meaning the occasional Summer Friday or spare day off might actually impact the bottom-line more favorably than an expectation that everyone stay late.

The best solution, then, might be for workers to be firm about their need for work-life balance. Getting up from our desks at 5pm, and making it clear that evening work emails can wait until morning might not seem possible — what if I get fired? What if my boss thinks I’m lazy? — but if the alternative is wasted hours staring at a screen, you may be able to convince your boss that less is more. And if not? It might be time to start looking for a job that has a more realistic expectation of labor.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and editor for CreativeLive, longtime reporter, and the co-founder of Seattlish. Follow her on Twitter at @mshannabrooks or go to her website for more stuff.