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Going Past our Culture of Overwork


It is not exactly a secret that US citizens are overworked; and chances are, you are probably feeling a little bit exhausted right now. As a matter of fact, according to a recent Staples Advantage survey of over 2000 workers, more than half of the workforce in the United States (53% to be exact) is feeling burned out and overworked.

What’s worse, according to OSCD’s Better Life Index, compared to 35 other countries, the United States ranked 8th-worst, when it comes to work-life balance. The result of all of this is very simple – it is killing the workers and the economy.

The Culture of Overwork

The improvement of the working condition has been an ongoing process since the last century. 90 years ago, the Ford Motor Company became the first company in the US to adopt the 40-hour week for employees in its factories. The 40-hour workweek quickly became the norm in most developed countries around the world.

Education was, and still is, seen as a way out of this type of treadmill – the more successful employees worked fewer hours than the average worker did. Today, the workweek still officially lasts 40 hours, while the recent Gallup findings reveal that the actual number is closer to 47 hours – almost a day longer than it was 35 years ago.

The Effects of Overwork

There are numerous studies showing that overwork can and will lead to a wide range of medical problems. A study from the American Journal of Epidemiology revealed that people who work more than 50 hours a week score lower on vocabulary and IQ tests compared to people who work 40 hours a week.

The study has also has shown that overwork can negatively affect your sleep and consequently raise the risk of obesity, stroke, and diabetes. But there are also economic consequences as well. Overwork usually leads to employee disengagement, which, according to the “State of The American Workplace” survey, cost the United States anywhere between $450 and $550 billion every year.

Is it Really Worth it?

In most cases, people have been overworking for so long that most of them forgot what it’s like not to feel overwhelmed. For instance, Silicon Valley’s startups and Wall Street’s banks offer extreme examples of industries that notoriously engage in overwork.

These industries even promote overwork as a badge of honor. However, it seems that people in Silicon Valley often forget the fact that over 90% of startups fail in the first few years. So the question is simple – are all those long hours, including the personal sacrifices really worth it? However, employees sometimes work longer hours for a different reason.

Keeping Distractions at the Minimum

Unsurprisingly, technology can partially be blamed for overwork because, according to Think Money, employees waste more than 750 hours every year due to workplace distractions. What’s more, the majority of work interruptions involve social networks, instant and text messaging, and according to the Fast Company, 47% of employees work only for around 15 minutes without getting distracted.

The responsibility of dealing with workplace distractions mainly falls on the shoulders of the HR department. Making small changes to company policies can go a long way, for instance, managers could easily adjust employees’ workloads using an employee scheduling software to fit their personal work style.

Boosting Productivity and Reducing Overwork

While the distractions like online shopping, surfing the web and posting cute cat videos on Facebook are complete time wasters, “traditional” distractions, like the water cooler conversations and trips to the break room are not necessarily a bad thing.

A recent BambooHR study revealed that those traditional activities build workplace culture and boost productivity. These interactions also increase employees’ interactions with the higher-up management, and foster increased respect for the company leadership.  

When the engagement levels suffer – everything falls apart. But if the management lets their employees relax and interact, it translates into a much more positive culture which increases the efficiency and eliminates the long hours.

All of this doesn’t mean that you can never pull a long workday, people just have to stop doing it routinely. Based on all of the research we looked at, people can definitely put in a week or two of 60+ hours to resolve a crisis or catch up on their work after a long break. However, that is quite different from constant overwork.

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