This Leading Productivity Killer is Not What You’d Expect

Feb 25, 2015
6 Min Read

Overwork is creating a vicious cycle that results in net losses.

During the recession of the late aughts, organizations laid off a ton of employees. Many of them didn’t replace these people, but the amount of work remained. Nearly seven years since the recession began, individual American professionals are feeling the fatigue of doing the jobs of two or three former colleagues.

In their State of Workplace Productivity Report, Cornerstone on Demand cites the results of a new study demonstrating that nearly 70 percent of American employees are suffering from an overabundance of work, and two-thirds feel that work overload is the most significant factor negatively impacting their productivity.


Overwork is a Damaging Epidemic

As I see it, there are two issues here. The first is why Americans are overworked to begin with, and the second in the relationship between overwork and the loss of productivity. Beginning with the first, the staffing shortages I just mentioned are a primary reason employees are burning more of that midnight oil. Jobs were scarce during and immediately after the recession, and employees willingly took on extra responsibilities in order to stay safe. Even when things got better, many companies realized they could do just fine with less and never staffed up again.

Technology is also a factor in overwork. Advances in data and computing reach, as well as advances in software such as no-code platforms, mean that we can work anywhere, anytime – and we do. We take our devices to bed so that they can interfere with our sleep and relaxation time. We work on teams with members all over the world, so we’re constantly on task outside of traditional business hours.

Then, there’s telecommuting. While telework certainly increases flexibility, remote employees end up working more. After all, there’s no commute, no distractions, and no noise. It’s only natural that the amount of work that’s actually completed in a day goes up. Plus, telecommuters are constantly worrying about proving themselves to their skeptical bosses, so they’re careful to work more than expected.

And finally, working until you can’t work anymore is in the American DNA. Think about the people who founded this country – those tenacious, “not afraid of backbreaking labor” Puritans! If you travel to most other countries, and you’ll see that our work ethic is pretty unique. As a culture, we don’t leave the office while the sun is still up, we don’t take extended leave for any reason, and it’s just fine if work interferes with our personal lives. It’s expected, and everyone’s doing it.


The Paradox of Longer Hours

So why does overwork kill productivity? Cornerstone explains it like this: the more work you have to do, the more hours you work, and the longer you work, the less productive you become – which means you have to work even more hours. As you become more and more energy and sleep-deprived, your focus and brainpower diminishes. You may be sitting at your computer, but you’re not all there.


Marching Orders for Managers

 If you suspect that your team members are overworked, what should you do about? Well, for one thing, don’t bury your head in the sand. Open an honest dialogue about it. Set up individual, in person meetings with each of your people and ask them how they’re feeling about their workload. If they are carrying more than they can sustain, take active measures to help them prioritize and re-distribute responsibilities.

Next, encourage your team to work in short bursts followed by a short break. The Muse recently featured social networking firm The Draugiem Group, which conducted a study illustrating that the most productive employees worked intensely for an hour and then took a 15 minute break. As many of us have always suspected, productivity is about working smarter, not longer.


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