The history of the forty hour week or why overtime hurts productivity comes from Henry Ford in the early 20th century, who doubled worker pay and cut hours from 9 to 8 a day.
Workers at factories, sweat shops, and other industry related fields used to work up to as many as 60 hours a week under poor conditions and salary. Obviously, nobody cared about employee productivity back then.
As the workers gained strength in unions, they began to demand less working hours per week and better working conditions. By going on strike, organizing, etc. the union members won out against their employers and managed to get the forty hour week.
The forty hour week was put in action federally in 1938 with the Fair Labor Standards Act. It also forbade labor by children under the age of 16.
Since then, year after year, studies continually proved that 40 hour work weeks are best for employee productivity, causing more and more businesses to adopt this scheme.
But then came the “passion crisis”. Employees, who worked more than 40 hours per week, were seen as more passionate and productive towards the company. So, it made the history rewind. Slowly, employers began to demand more and more time from their employees, from staying after hours to coming in on weekends.
Those who have already worked for some time know that a work week can reach up to 50-60 hours. A typical employee puts in an average of 55 hours a week consistently. But putting in more hours doesn`t necessarily mean that the after hours time will be productive, and here`s why:
1) Low recharge time
Our body is a battery, and just like any battery, we need to recharge fully. When employees work 8 hours, they have enough time left to get home, relax, go to bed and wake up fully recharged.
By going over 40 hours, a week employees shorten the recharge time. Staying late at the office means less time for a proper meal and sleep. As a result, employees enter the new day at 70-80 % capacity.
2) The gains are not worth the losses
Working a 60-70 hours week has very short-term gains and should be applied on rare occasions. Such occasions could be if the company has to meet a deadline. In this case, asking your employees to put in more is productive.
After a crisis is averted and the deadline is met, it takes the team several weeks for the burnout to be lifted and to resume a fully productive 40-hour work week. In other words, that small amount of 30% boost in productivity taken in advance is now being paid back with interest.
Thereby a continuous demand of overtime will end up as long-term losses. After the first overtime workweek, employee productivity begins to decline and every consecutive overtime week that is demanded after, productivity falls even more rapidly.
3) Overtime isn’t necessarily productive
Now the most obvious yet equally the most ignored point. Staying after hours at the office doesn`t necessarily mean that employees will stay productive.
In the first paragraph, we compared a human body to a battery. Well just like any battery, we have a capacity. Depending on how intense the day is, depends the speed of losing that capacity.
Pushing employees past their capacity means that you:
a) cause careless errors because of lack of rest which could take days and significant costs to fix;
b) exhaust your employees causing losses in employee productivity and job burnouts;
c) cause unproductive uses of time such as checking emails and web surfing.
Workers in the 20th century demanded a 40 hour week for a good reason. By forcing employees to work more, you hurt their productivity which will inevitably affect your company.