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Can Spending Less Time at Work Make You More Productive?

Can spending less time at the office actually make you more productive? Microsoft Japan thinks so

In fact, when the company tested a four-day workweek in 2019, they reported a productivity boost of 40 percent.

Still, many top-performing economies have an extremely, perhaps overly, dedicated workforce. Some Americans value work ethics so heavily they associate themselves with more with their jobs than with their hobbies—and it’s even where many find the most value in their lives. In China, many workers abide by the 996 system, which means working from 9 AM to 9 PM., six days a week. South Korea is among the countries with the longest work week, with workers in the office for an average of 2,069 hours per year.

But is working yourself to the bone actually good for your company’s bottom line? Data suggests it’s not. 

Here are three ways overwork can negatively affect you and your employees:

1. Burnout

Millennials, who are now 25 to 37-year-olds and often struggling with stagnant wages, expensive housing, and student debt, have plenty of reasons to stress. And that stress can often lead to burnout.

Burnout is so prevalent today that Millennials are dubbed “The Burnout Generation.” While every generation can feel the pressure to overwork, a Yellow Brick Program study found that burnout affects the lives of 96 percent of millennials, and that 53 percent of millennials missed work because of it.

One of the major factors that contributes to this generation’s burnout is constant overworking.

43 percent of millennials work overtime, which is more than any other generation represented in the workplace. They’re also less likely to use all their vacation time. 

Surprisingly, though, managers want—or should want—their employees to take PTO. In fact, 80 percent of managers believed vacation time helps maintain high energy levels on their teams, and 67 percent said it made employees more productive.

Burnout at any level can affect negatively affect a team’s morale. But at the manager and C-level executive level, burnout can result in decreased client satisfaction and increased employee turnover.

In this situation, working more instead of working less only makes the vicious cycle worse. The more you work, the less able you are to work. 

2. Loss of Focus

Ask any junior software engineer working for a major corporation if they do overtime, and the answer will most likely be a tired but proud, “Yes.”

The problem with this attitude is focusing on effort, rather than productivity. You may feel like a top achiever when you work 12 hours a day, but the quantity and the quality of your work will not stay the same each hour. In fact, you only have about 6 productive hours on any given day.

The graph below shows how average productivity changes throughout the day. The lighter the shade of blue, the more productive a person is.

A chart of employees' most productive hours. Employees get the most work done, on average, between 10 am and 12 pm and 2 pm and 5 pm.

Source: RescueTime

You can clearly see that productivity starts falling sharply at 5 PM. Still, many people who work report staying well past their working hours to do minor improvements. Companies need to consider hiring more employees, implementing technology or outsourcing to freelancers to take this burden off their workers, allowing the in-house staff can focus on their primary duties more productively.

3. Workplace Distractions

The worst thing about working more is that, often, you don’t actually work. Instead, you spend a lot of time being distracted.

To be productive, you have to catch the flow state. According to McKinsey, the flow state is when you focus on the task at hand and stop paying attention to anything else. You work productively and barely notice the time pass. You finally enjoy your job!

But then, the manager asks you to drop what you’re doing and focus on something else instead. You get an email you need to answer ASAP. A coworker comes up and asks for help. The flow state is broken, and you need to spend time readjusting.

When you’re distracted already, it’s much easier to get distracted even more. You end up browsing social media, checking email, or picking a new podcast, and by the time you get back to the task at hand, an hour has passed. Now, you need to work overtime to meet the deadline.

Microsoft Japan claims the success of their four-day workweek was owed mostly to eliminating workplace distractions.

So how do we avoid this catch 22? 

Plan rather than overwork. Unless you’re a superhero, you can’t overwork, stay productive, AND be mentally healthy. But this doesn’t mean you can’t be a top achiever.

Instead of putting in more hours, improve your time management skills, avoid distractions, and make sure you have a good rest after work.

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