Regardless of how many calendar days employees are working per week, the 40-hour standard is becoming a thing of the past.
- Workers in the U.S. are logging more hours than ever, with 50 hours per week no longer considered unusual.
- Employees may be working from home after they leave the office, and never are completely "off" work.
- Overwork can cause physical and mental ailments due to stress.
Years ago, working exactly 40 hours per week – 9 to 5, Monday through Friday – was standard for most office employees. Today, this schedule is still fairly common, but workers are often logging far more than their expected 8 hours a day.
According to a survey of U.S. "knowledge workers" – those who primarily handle or use information in an office setting, rather than working with their hands – by web conferencing software PGi, 87% of employees work more than 40 hours per week, with nearly one-quarter of all respondents putting in more than 50 hours per week. But these workers are not necessarily staying late in the office: About 80% of survey respondents said they bring work home with them one or more days per week, including 15% whose work-related activities bleed into their weekends.
The study also found that lunch breaks have taken a hit in employees' efforts to get more done during the workday. Fifty-eight percent of workers told PGi that they don't eat lunch away from their desk during the typical workday. However, skipping lunch breaks actually does more harm than good because taking regular breaks boosts productivity and prevents fatigue and burnout, experts say.
The always-on, constantly connected environment in which today's workers live has shaped this trend of longer hours and blurred lines between work and personal time. But just because employees can work 24/7 doesn't mean they want to: More than 70% of survey respondents admitted they were unhappy with the number of hours they're working, and wish they had more time for personal activities such as exercising, spending time with family and friends, pursuing hobbies, and running errands.
Overworked employees also said they would appreciate in-office perks to relieve stress, with gym memberships (32.6%), relaxation rooms (25.9%) and lunchtime yoga sessions (16.3%) topping the list.
To combat their diminishing personal time, employees are finding little ways to be more efficient in the office and cut down on the work they need to take home. Survey respondents said the following tricks increase their productivity:
- To-do lists
- Bringing lunch to work
- Drinking coffee
- Avoiding meetings
- Not using social media
- Taking breaks
- Not multitasking
Ultimately, though, it's up to employers to let their workers know it's OK to disconnect. However, not all employers are doing so: 64% of HR professionals expect employees to be reachable outside of office hours, according to a survey by CareerArc and WorkplaceTrends.com.
PGi surveyed more than 500 U.S.-based professionals about their workweeks. For full results, visit PGi's blog post.
Drawbacks to working 50 hours a week
Aside from the obvious impact on employees' free time, there are other, less apparent downsides to people overworking, whether voluntarily or reluctantly. A recent paper published in the Academy of Management Journal points out that overworked managers treat their employees less fairly than managers who have less-demanding workloads. Because fairness is not a simple task, managers need sufficient time in their day to attend to it, and it can easily slip through the cracks.
Add that to the fact that overwork reduces productivity. If organizations want to empower their managers and employees to do their best work, they may need to encourage them to spend less time in the office, rather than more.
Physical effects of overwork
The toll of working too much is not limited to managers, it has consequences for all workers. The results can be seen in physical and emotional maladies including heart disease, cancer and diabetes. One Canadian study found that women working more than 45 hours a week had a 63% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than women who worked between 35-40 hours per week. For both men and women, those who worked more than 55 hours per week increased their risk of atrial fibrillation (a precursor to stroke risk) by 1.4 times compared to those who work 35-40 hours a week.
According to Healthline, the increased risk of such diseases is due to the effect of cortisol that is released by your body in response to the added stress. The same article points out that when people work too hard, they may try to relax in unhealthy ways, such as by drinking too much, which in turn can cause even more health problems.
Aside from stress-related issues, working too much can cause other physical problems, depending on the type of work you do. Standing too long can cause foot problems, while sitting too much may lead to back issues. Dr. Isaac Tabari, chief podiatrist at the NYC Center for Podiatric Excellence, sees frequent cases of foot problems caused by people standing too long at work. Other people may experience panic and anxiety attacks or gain weight due to neglecting exercise and proper diet.
Some people truly love their work and can work 12-hour days with no ill effects. But for others, the grip of work is more insidious – it is an obsession, even an addiction. It can be difficult for a casual observer to determine the difference, but a professional can distinguish between healthy fascination and unhealthy compulsion. Psychologist Bryan Robinson talks about the deadly risks: "The research is overwhelming. In my mind, there is no question that work addiction is a compulsive disorder. It kills people. In Japan, they have a name for it: karoshi. It means death from overwork."