Tech’s Long Hours Are Discriminatory and Counterproductive

One-third of workers are ill or disabled—and this industry is shutting them out

Photo: Djim Loic/Unsplash
A banner from 1856 reads, “8 hours labour, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest.” Source: Wikimedia

Fewer hours in the day

Many people with chronic illnesses or disabilities simply have fewer hours in the day. We may need more sleep than comparatively healthy people—and yet still wake up feeling awful—as well as have to carefully budget limited energy. Conditions often require frequent doctor visits, blood tests, MRIs, physical therapy, and other appointments, plus there’s dealing with the administrative burden of managing scheduling, billing, and insurance claims, all of which frequently involve errors.

The research on productivity

As much as possible, we need to get away from the shallow idea that the quantity of time worked is what matters. The tech industry’s obsession with ridiculously long hours is not only inaccessible to many disabled people and harmful to everyone’s health and relationships, but as Olivia Goldhill pointed out for Quartz at Work, research on productivity suggests it’s just inefficient:

  • Overwork is linked to impaired sleep, and sleep deprivation has long been known to lengthen reaction time, interfere with problem-solving, and even induce an impairment equivalent to being drunk.
  • Depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, memory problems, heart disease, and poorer judgment calls are all repercussions tied to being overworked.
  • Predictable, required time off (like nights and weekends) make teams more productive.
Roman timekeeping: Four clocks show the amount of night and day at times of the year. Image: Darekk2 via Wikimedia

The importance of flexible work environments

Accommodations, even simple ones, can mean a world of difference to employees with illnesses or disabilities. Brianne Benness, founder of the No End in Sight podcast mentioned above, has written about how a flexible job with remote work helped her stay employed during her at-the-time undiagnosed illness: “When I woke up in a lot of pain, I could tell my boss I was working from home… When the pain in my neck made it too distracting to sit at my desk, I could move to a couch and lie down with my head supported.”

The tech industry problems of exclusion, discrimination, and unhealthy work habits run deep, but there is also a widespread appetite for change.

Some business leaders and employers are recognizing the value on their own. A Harvard Business Review article details an experiment by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom and Ctrip travel website cofounder James Liang in which they let half of Ctrip’s employees work from home for nine months. They found that the group working from home was both more productive and only half as likely to quit as other employees. Bloom said he was blown away by the results, and the benefits of flexible work were much greater than he expected.

We have a long way to go

In her keynote at GopherCon, Google developer advocate Julia Ferraioli pointed out that, in tech, we often make products accessible but not the processes or the teams we use to build them. True inclusion means having disabled people on your team; the people creating the technology need to be representative of the people using technology, which, increasingly, is everyone.

  • They encourage and advance those employees.
  • They provide accessible tools and technology and have a formal accommodations program.
  • They empower those employees with mentoring and coaching initiatives (Note: Not all mentorship is the same. Research has shown that public endorsement of a mentee’s authority and championing their ideas is far more effective than advice on how the mentee should change and gain self-knowledge.)

fast.ai co-founder & professor USF Data Institute | twitter: @math_rachel

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