The long working hours’ culture is hurting our economy!

Monday, 28 March 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

As a nation, it seems we are now living to work, rather than working to live. Latest statistics reveal that over two thirds of our local working population routinely spends in excess of 40 hours each week at work and a significant number continues their work-related activities, once they return home.

We are clearly caught in a global wave, where one in every five people in the world, works more than 48 hours each week, often merely to make ends meet.  This is an estimated 22 per cent of the global workforce, or 614.2 million people, who according to the International Labour Organisation, works “excessively” long hours.

If more is better, then we should see an increase in productivity amongst those nations investing significantly longer hours at work. The paradox of this relation is that, longer working hours do not always translate into greater productivity.  Quantity clearly is not quality, it seems.  In fact, when the gross domestic product (GDP) of countries is compared in relation to the actual number of hours worked, countries that invest more hours (such as Singapore and Korea) fare well below those countries that invest fewer, but smarter, hours (such Norway, Ireland and Germany). In 2009, Korea invested 70% more hours per worker than Norway, to gain less than 30% of Norway’s GDP.  

How is it possible that more work fails to transform into more profits? The reality is that, thanks to the rapid evolution of technology, we are already enjoying considerable increases in global productivity.  But the ceiling observed over human productivity is down to our biological limitations.  To tap into our human productivity, we must now learn to work smarter, not just longer.

Human evolution, unlike technology, has moved only at a modest pace. In fact, we are biologically still the same as the first modern human, Homo sapiens that appeared 200,000 years ago!  It has been estimated that these first humans spent 2 to 3 hours each day, finding food, compared to the 8 hours or more spent by today’s city workers.  Early humans, like our rural farming communities, in the absence of artificial light, rested and slept during the dark part of each day, which was around 10 hours, compared to today’s 5 to 6 hours of rest and sleep.  And as early transportation was mostly on foot, mobility over long distances was also hugely restricted.  

Today, we can be more active, move and travel 24 hours a day, thanks to electric lighting and efficient modes of transport that can take them across the world in a day or two. Now add to this, the internet, globalisation, corporate expectations and even the BlackBerry, then it is easy to see that there are simply not enough hours in the day to work let alone rest and sleep, in a 24 hour globalised world that never stops. Some experts say that even the trusty BlackBerry can add as much as 15 hours to our working week!

Put simply, neither our biology nor length of day has seen a change in the past 200, 000 years, and as a result we are truly struggling to cope with the demands made upon us by modern life.  From an evolutionary viewpoint, working 8 hours or more a day for survival, just is not genetically ‘natural’ for any of us.  

The advance from life as a farmer (with a more manageable pace) to life in a computerised world took a 100 years for people in western countries, but it is now happening in less than a decade in our own country and in countries such as China and India.  In this short period, we, along with these other nations are experiencing an escalation in health problems that have long been associated with industrialised countries, such as anxiety, depression, burnout syndromes, chronic fatigue, cognitive (memory) impairment, overweight, Type 2 diabetes, sleep problems and diffuse muscular pains to name a few.

When life’s demands get too much, we all know that the first thing we sacrifice is our sleep. But, we need sleep, even more than food, it seems! Amnesty International lists sleep deprivation as a form of torture.  

There is evidence that even a small loss of sleep takes a significant toll on our health, mood, cognitive capacity and productivity. Insufficient sleep disrupts our memory and our ability to think and process information to a significant extent. It reduces our emotional intelligence (i.e. the ability to interact effectively with others) and also upsets our constructive thinking skills.  In fact, the loss of just one and half hours sleep has been shown to reduce our daytime alertness by a staggering 32%.

When we consider two ingredients vital for the modern economy — creativity and innovation, it has been shown that sleep deprivation actively dulls our ability to come up with novel ideas and solutions. In fact, sleep deprived individuals have been shown to tend toward easy solutions or ones that have already been done before, to poor effect.

If we considered the number of patents granted (i.e. the rights given to inventors over their inventions) for different countries, as a very rough indicator of creativity and innovation, an interesting picture emerges.  Singapore and Korea with some of the longest working hours (well in excess of 2300 hours per worker each year) had 1.8 and 16 patents registered per million inhabitants, respectively. Finland and Norway (with less than 1700 hours per worker each year) had 36 and 22 patents registered per million inhabitants, respectively, in 2009. Luxembourg (with 1600 hours worked per worker) had a staggering 431 patents granted per million inhabitants in the same period!

There are clearly many factors that determine the productivity of a nation, and it is not being suggested here that shorter working days will translate simply and quickly in to higher productivity (or even patents registered)!  But from a biological, physiological and psychological perspective, there is clear evidence that working longer hours and prolonged sleep deprivation does have significant effects on actual performance.

Without exception, over 97% of us need between 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep each day to feel fully rested, and to function optimally the following day.  When we run on less, then it can be said with certainty that we are also under performing the following day.

Individuals who take pride in their work have long acknowledged the important link between sleep and performance. A study of top violinists revealed that, except for practice itself, sleep was the second most important factor in improving performance.

Intuitively, we know just how important adequate rest and sleep is in determining our own and other’s performance. Consider the following situations; would you feel comfortable getting in to a car driven by someone who was clearly sleep deprived? Would you feel secure if the pilot flying your plane had only a couple of hours sleep the night before? Would you feel confident if a colleague, who was to give a key presentation, had not rested sufficiently?  Would you feel comforted in the knowledge that the surgeon about to operate on your child had been working non-stop for the previous 24 hours? Would you trust yourself to give your best, when you knew that you had not rested sufficiently?

As workers, managers and employers, we all work within an increasingly competitive and globalised environment, where longer working hours have simply become the corporate norm. But if real increases in human productivity is to be sought, we must collectively shift our thinking away from the long working hours’ culture, and look to ways of optimising the way we work.  We must pursue the very best results and not just what’s possible under the circumstances.

There are so many ingrained attitudes and beliefs that encourage poor performance in today’s workplace. Consider the manager who regularly stays behind after work, making his subordinates feel that they too must remain after work. Over a brief period of time, this team’s collective productivity will spiral down simply through exhaustion. Then there’s the manager who routinely calls his subordinates at home on work matters or the evening meetings that run deep into the night.  When seen in isolation, all these events seem like an exception that should not have any significant effect on productivity. But, when added together, with a multitude of other similar events, the result can be quite damaging to productivity.

In the 21st century, productivity is not measured simply in terms of number of garments made or calls answered by a call centre. The discerning customer is now seeking and demanding quality solutions to their problems. Within this context, productivity will soon, if not already, depend directly upon the cognitive ability of each and every worker and employers with a deeper understanding of how to best manage this human resource will clearly have much to gain.

I am a chartered occupational psychologist, working in Europe and Asia, on optimising human performance at work. I am inviting DailyFT readers to send in work and performance related questions to address in future columns. Please write to me at I look forward to your input into this column.

(Dr. Chintha Dissanayake, BSc, MSc, PhD, MA (Empl. Law) is a registered chartered occupational psychologist working in Europe and Asia. She has been working to build the profile of Occupational Psychology in Sri Lanka over the past seven years, through her writings, conferences, seminars and workshops.)