Long Work Hours: Perception and Consequences


I’m no stranger to long work hours. When I was a management consultant, my life was work. I was either working or resting to work. A day ended when I would physically collapse on my laptop. I left consulting because I knew that lifestyle was not only unsustainable but would also shorten my lifespan.

In an industry (aka. non-consulting) job, I struggle to strike the right balance. Am I working too little? Am I working too much? What time should I leave work? Should I take my laptop home?

In consulting, you had very tight deadlines, so you knew you had to finish a piece of work within a few weeks / months. When the project is finished, you’re done and on to the next one. However, in an industry job, you may have some projects and urgent deadlines, but for the most part the work is business as usual. At any given time, there is always work to do.

Sadly, determining the right amount of working hours is more than just about doing your job. It is about branding yourself. I sit next to a guy that I like to call the Hour Police. He comments on the comings and goings of our co-workers. “How is this guy identified as a high potential talent? He leaves work every day at 6:30pm.” or “She arrives at 9:30am and leaves at 6pm every day. She doesn’t seem very motivated.”. 

For the Hour Police and perhaps others, your work hours are a reflection of how diligent and ambitious you are and maybe even how good you are at your job. A 2010 research shows that many managers have this attitude. The more you work, the better you are perceived, and the more bragging rights you have. Yes. You’re a hero for working all those hours.

However, let’s examine the other side of the coin. The Hour Police himself works every from 8am to 9pm. I’ve heard others ponder: “Does he really need to work 13-hour days? Is he just working longer and not necessarily smarter?” or “Does he live in the office? When does he ever spend time with his wife?”.

Given his 65 to 70 hour work-weeks, the Hour Police is perceived as inefficient, unproductive, and even uncaring. This Economist article seems to suggest that working less may mean we’re more productive. After all, as the graph below demonstrates, the less hours worked per person, the higher their GDP per hours work, meaning the higher their productivity. Correlation? Causation? Unsure, but it does show that Germans work less than the Greeks, and we know which one has the more productive economy.


Also, from a longer-term perspective, longer hours may cause you to be perceived negatively in other ways. As research on white collar workers shows, working long hours can double your odds of depression, and of course being overworked leads to greater stress levels. When you’re stressed and / or depressed, you’re less likely to seem on top of your game. You may bark at your co-workers, dress sloppily, and even develop creepy-looking, stress-induced eye twitches (yup…been there).

Perceptions aside, studies also show that spending long hours at the office can actually kill you. You have a 40 to 80% greater chance of getting heart disease. If accelerated death is the cost, then you better make sure your work and its rewards would be worth it.

Therefore, it seems that the Goldilocks approach may be the most appropriate. Don’t work too much, don’t work too little. Work enough that’s just right.

Managing work during stressful times

working cat

For the last couple of months, work has been killer. My former boss moved onto a new position and took a long leave before the new boss arrived. During these transitional times, I not only inherited work from my old boss, but also continued with my primary responsibilities while on-boarding my new boss.

All of a sudden, more emails, deadlines, and meetings all started charging my way. People from all sides needed decisions / recommendations / input while I was still trying to figure out what was the issue at hand. Meanwhile, a large, hot spotlight was on my back as I had to continue running our group before my new boss was fully onboard.

My first reaction was to bang my head against the desk…repeatedly. After discovering that head-banging did not resolve any issues, I then proceeded to take deep breaths…until my desk neighbor thought I was becoming asthmatic. Finally, I took some more sensible steps to manage (and attempt to reduce) my stress.

  • Prioritize: I turned to my tried and true method for dealing with “ALOT of stuff.” I listed all of my work tasks and prioritized each item based on urgency and importance. What do I need to do NOW? What can I push back on? What can I delegate? What can I ignore? I think this is critical from transforming a large blob of work to manageable tasks. 
  • Focus: My inbox has been overflowing with emails. While sometimes I find it irresistible to check every single email that comes through, the key to getting things done is to focus on what you are doing. I started scheduling specific times to check email. I’d tell myself, “OK. You will work on this for 45 mins and check your email for 15 mins.”
  • Negotiate: I find many times what people request in emails can be very different than what they actually want. Investing in a 5 to 10 minute phone conversation to figure out what they really need can be such a time saver. A request can go from “I need every competitor product sales for the last 5 years” to “I just need these 3 product sales for the last 5 years”.
  • Decide: Indecision can generate more workload. A decision may be held up because more information, analysis, and stakeholder buy-in are needed. However, the longer a decision is stalled, the greater the ripple effect on other people’s work. When time runs out, the indecision manifests itself into a series of painful fire drills. Therefore, I find that action generally trumps inaction when running a business. Sound and efficient decision-making can save yourself and others a tremendous amount of work later on.
  • Step Out: Sometimes, you find out that the sky is falling and then more bad news follow, pushing you to the brink of a heart attack. When this happened to me recently, I shoved my computer away and went for a walk (without my phone). It turned out to be a great move. The walk allowed me to not only calm down but also helped me put the situation into perspective.
  • Celebrate small wins: I relish the feeling I get when crossing out an item on my to-do list. I can actually feel a small rock removed from my shoulders. Crossing out items also signifies that you’ve made progress. You set out to do something and you did it. I think it’s important to celebrate these small wins to encourage yourself to keep moving and progressing.
  • Stay Healthy: The automatic reaction to stress tends to be sleep less, consume more caffeine and carbs, and cut out exercise. However, I find myself utterly useless when I’m sleep, nutrition, and exercise-deprived. Forcing yourself to sleep, exercise, and eat vegetables are actually better for your productivity.

Completely cutting stress out of your life is near impossible. Instead, I think the key is how to manage stress and perhaps even turn it into a positive trigger.