Why is working long hours bad for you and your employer?

Working long hours gives you more money, more money means less stress about being able to get by financially, right? Possibly, but it is not as simple as that.

The health toll, which eventually takes on a massive financial burden of its own, may end up costing you much more than the extra money you made during those long hours, and your employer may end up with inferior products.

If working long hours were linked to wealth, then why do people in rich countries work fewer hours than those in developing nations?

However, there is no getting away from it. Unless you were born into money, working very few hours is an impractical dream, especially if you take on a mortgage to buy a house, get together with your partner and have kids, and have hopes they will go to college one day.

All these things cost money, and the fewer hours you work, the harder it gets to pay for them.

So, what are we supposed to do? Work less and be frugal, or take on more hours and risk our health?

Why do people work long hours?

Below are the most common reasons a person may be working long hours:

  • Pressure at work – simply because of an increase in workload, ever-more demanding customers, company downsizing, reduced budgets or more competition.
  • Work organization – some employers fail to see working hours as a priority, or the worker may need help in organization his/her time and duties.
  • Culture – in many cultures we are taught from a very young age to work hard at school and later on in life, that it is not only good for our future but also shows commitment, stamina and backbone.
  • The employer – some managers value “being present” as a sign of commitment.
  • Job insecurity – some people may feel that if they do not put in many hours they might be replaced.

    person falling
    Many work long hours to climb up faster.
  • Career prospects – many believe that if their bosses see them working many hours they are more likely to be promoted. This strategy can backfire, however. The boss may find the employee indispensable, and when considering candidates for promotion may rule out that person “He/she is indispensable. Who would replace him/her?”
  • Financial – the employee needs the overtime money: there are bills to pay, or they may be saving up for something.
  • Preparing for the next day – in some professions employees have to work extra hours to prepare for the next day. For example, in the legal field lawyers and paralegals need to get ready for their next day in court. This “next day syndrome” can persist and become a daily occurrence.

Does working long hours affect your health?

In 2011, researchers at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health found that working long hours is probably the cause of health problems among a significant proportion of workers.

They gathered and examined data from several previous studies to determine whether working many hours each week might be associated with worsening health problems.

They reported their results in the American Journal of Epidemiology and concluded there was a “40% excess risk of CHD (coronary heart disease) in employees working long hours.”

Research team leader, Dr. Marianna Virtanen explained that among several factors that contribute to heart disease from working long hours, prolonged exposure to psychological stress and bad diet stand out the most.

People working fewer hours today than 20 years ago

average hours worked

Source: OECD.

According to the OECD, workers in the world’s richest countries worked much longer hours in 1960 than they do today.

Working fewer hours is not reflected in lower incomes. Workers in Germany, Norway, the Netherlands and Sweden work fewer than 1,600 hours per year, while those in Greece, Poland, Turkey and Mexico work more than 1,800 hours.

According to an OECD report, it is in fact the other way round – the richer countries work fewer hours.

South Korea, whose workers historically have worked long hours, now has the fastest declining working time among the OECD nations. The South Korean government has been proactive in lowering working hours and increasing leisure and relaxation time at all levels.

In 2004, South Korea introduced legislation limiting the working week to forty-hours for companies with more than 1,000 workers. From 2005 to 2011 new laws were introduced to include smaller and smaller companies. By July 2011 the forty-hour week became mandatory for any company with 20 or more employees.

Public holidays in South Korea were increased to 16 per year; higher than 10 in the US and 8 in the UK.

Long hours more common in developing nations – according to the International Labor Organization, more than 40% of workers in Turkey, the Philippines, Morocco, Ethiopia, and Nigeria work “long hours”, defined as working at least 48 hours per week, compared to 11% in the USA, 15% in the UK, 15% in  Germany and less than 10% in Canada, the Netherlands and Sweden.

Working long hours and productivity

Working long hours may not be in the interest of the employer who seeks to make the best product or provide the finest service possible.

Researchers at Stanford University suggest that when workers do many hours, in excess of say 40 or 45 hours in a week, they will be much less productive, “due to stress, fatigue, and other factors. Worker’s maximum efficiency is significantly reduced during those extra hours.”

If employees are tired from overwork, even the first few hours of each day may be less productive compared to their efficiency and precision at a 40 hour week. So, working long hours may provide no benefit, and could possibly be detrimental.

car crash
Working long hours raises the risk of injury.

It is also possible that during the first few hours of a long working day productivity is fine, but after 8 hours it drops, in fact “productivity may drop so much after some point as to become negative.” In other words, the employee may be so tired after a certain number of hours that any extra work done is more likely to have mistakes or oversights that require additional hours to fix.

It is well known that employees who use heavy machinery or drive vehicles and work long hours are at a higher risk of injuring themselves or damaging the goods they are working on.

A study carried out at the University of Massachusetts Medical School found that “working in jobs with overtime schedules was associated with a 61% higher injury hazard rate compared to jobs without overtime.”

For an employer, especially if he or she is in a highly competitive industry, overworking the employees may result in inferior products.