Why You Should Stop Overworking

This morning, I logged onto The Age website to indulge in my weekend ritual of catching up on Melbourne news while enjoying a cup of coffee.

The main headline was about yet another leadership crisis facing our embattled prime minister Tony Abbott. Another one? I had lost count of how many crises we had seen of late in Australian politics. It had ceased to be newsworthy for me and mostly I just tune out now.

The next article proclaimed that “Tech companies are destroying employees lives”. Definitely sensationalist but intriguing enough for me to click through to have a read. This article turned out to be a write up of an essay written by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, the latest high profile voice weighing in on the recent debate about Amazon’s corporate culture.

A quick synopsis of the Amazon saga if you’ve missed it. The New York Times recently published an expose on Amazon’s allegedly brutal working culture, triggering a barrage of responses and discussion in the media, including Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ company-wide memo and an insider’s account refuting the NYT version of events.

In his essay “Work Hard, Live Well“, Moskovitz recounted how he regretted his earlier choices and believed that he would have been a more effective leader and employee, if he had worked lesser. I agreed with most of what he said, in particular his conclusion:

If you’re going to devote the best years of your life to work, do so intentionally. You can do great things AND live your life well. You can have it all, and science says you should.

My own experience (which I discussed in a previous post) was very similar to Moskovitz’s. I too learnt the hard way that I could be more productive, healthier, and happier – by not prioritising work so much.

The belief that you need to earn your stripes and prove yourself by working crazy long hours is pervasive not just in the tech industry, but also in other industries – most notably investment banking, management consulting, legal and start-ups. Goldman Sachs this year introduced new rules restricting interns work-day to 17 hours. This change followed the tragic death of a 21 year old Bank of America Merrill Lynch intern who regularly pulled all-nighters to impress his bosses before dying of an epileptic seizure.

I think the elephant in the room is that many leaders and managers continue to perpetuate the myth of the corporate warrior hero-archetype, available 24/7 and 100% committed to his client/job/career. Whilst most corporate high-flyers may privately agree that working long hours does not equal productivity, they are reluctant to acknowledge this publicly or change their own behaviour because this could be perceived as a CLM (career limiting move).

Bain & Company study found that at the start of their careers, both women and men are equally confident about their ability, and more women (43%) than men (34%) has aspirations, to reach a top management position. After two years, women’s aspiration and confidence plummeted 60% and nearly 50% respectively, while men only experienced a 10% dip in confidence. These declines are independent of marriage and motherhood status.

The study cited that one of the reason for the erosion in women’s ambition is due to a deeply ingrained ideal worker model which included characteristics such as an unwavering commitment to long hours, come in early, leave late and being “always on”.

Even if they are genuine and active supporters of flexible and family-friendly practices, for ambitious managers with C-suite aspirations, the unspoken rule is that these practices do not apply to them, if they wish to stay in the game.

It’s time to dispel this myth.

Working long hours does not equal productivity. Unless you are working on an assembly line, there is no correlation between how long you work and how productive you are.

The research is clear: Long hours backfire for people and for companies. Work too hard and you lose sight of the bigger picture. Overwork and the resulting stress lead to all sorts of health problems, which affects the bottom line by way of absenteeism, turnover, workers compensation claims and rising insurance costs.

There is a difference between busywork and productive work. Managers need to reward results and not encourage busywork or worse presenteeism. My pet peeve is the unnecessary late night or weekend email that adds zero value (such as one-liners saying that an email is noted or something equally meaningless), other than not so subtly letting the boss and everyone else that is copied into the email know how committed the person is. A task monkey can be programmed to send emails after work hours so please give it a break and find more productive work to do.

This is not to say that you can never pull a long day – just not routinely. Most of the research suggests that people can put in a week or two of 60 hours to resolve a true crisis but that’s different from habitual and chronic overwork. Like most things in life, don’t over-do it.

Work smarter, not harder. Lead by example. Let go of practices that don’t work and do more of the things that do work.


  1. Michael

    Great post thanks Lina. Interestingly, one way that helps countering the phenomena of over work is scrapping the idea of work time altogether and let people dictate their own timetable and their own holidays. This goes hand in hand with sorting smart deliverables for each employee so the hours required are reasonable. Netflix has innovated this successfully – see here – https://hbr.org/2014/01/how-netflix-reinvented-hr

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