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Overwork and excessive hours undermine productivity

Before jumping into the column topic, I want to acknowledge that this is my 25th “Growing Leadership” column in NH Business Review, going back to the first published on July 20, 2018. I am thankful to the readers and the NHBR team for giving me the opportunity. I welcome your feedback and suggestions, so please feel free to contact me. Now on to the topic at hand!

Our work culture sometimes conveys a message that those who work the longest hours are the most valuable employees. I respectfully disagree, believing that those who work the smartest are more valuable than those who work the longest. In my leadership trainings, I argue that regularly working more than 50 hours a week, including frequently responding to emails after work hours and on weekends, may actually be doing your business a disservice.

Sure, there are exceptions. Entrepreneurs invariably work long hours during startup phases, crises sometimes demand extraordinary efforts, and we can all be grateful for the health workers who have worked so hard during these challenging Covid times. Also, many low-wage workers are compelled to work long hours, sometimes in multiple jobs, to make ends meet.

I am thinking more about people in salaried professional jobs, driven by company or personal norms that the more hours they work, the more valuable they are to the business and the more likely they are to get raises, promotions, etc.

Writing in Harvard Business Review, Sarah Green Carmichael cites research that overwork leads to health problems, including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory and heart disease — which, in turn, result in absenteeism, turnover and rising health insurance costs. These workers may lose sight of the big picture, “get lost in the weeds” and make more mistakes.

Errors and unhealthy employees are hardly good for business!

Research by the Gallup organization shows burnout risk increasing significantly when employees exceed 50 hours of work a week, although they acknowledge other factors, too, including unfair treatment, unclear communication and lack of support from managers. Two other key burnout factors, though, are directly related to work hours: unmanageable workloads and unreasonable time pressure.

Art Markman wrote in the Harvard Business Review that employees are never going to be “caught up,” so it is unproductive to feel guilty when you can’t check off everything on your to-do list.

There will always be more work, so how do you draw the line? We all like to see our inbox empty, but is that a useful standard to measure workplace success and productivity?

I am all for to-do lists and try to update mine at the end of each workday, but it is important to focus on the quality of the list.

How much of your to-do list includes items that are really important? Do you carve out time to make sure that those important items get the needed attention? How much of your workday is consumed by activities that are less important or perhaps could be delegated to others?

Stephen Covey reminds us to “put first things first” in his classic, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” The urgent/important matrix he describes is a useful way to approach this challenge. We often find ourselves taking on more activities in Quadrant I (urgent/important) and Quadrant III (urgent/not important), reactively responding to the needs of the moment. Quadrant II (not urgent/important) is typically underutilized, even though it includes many important leadership activities, including:

• Goal-setting and clarifying priorities

• Building positive relationships

• Developing and training people

• Reflecting on your own behavior and making constant improvements

• Creating a positive work climate where people have a sense of belonging and meaning

• Communicating your vision and values

• Encouraging innovation

• Delegating

• Rewarding positive results

Are you effectively managing your time to ensure that you are working smarter rather than longer? Are you ensuring that you have enough time for important leadership activities? Track your time on different activities for a couple of weeks. What do you wish you were doing less — or more?

And what about those you supervise?

Are you encouraging employees to work unproductively long hours? Reflect on what you communicate to your employees, both formally and informally, and how you might support them to work smarter.

We each have an extraordinary opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives, including our own. Don’t underestimate your impact!

Douglass P. Teschner, founder of Growing Leadership LLC, can be reached at dteschner@growingleadershipllc.com.

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