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.