The average US workweek is 41 hours, however, more than 30% of American workers work 45 or more hours a week, compared with Germany (18%) and France (4%). The fact is, many Americans wear this as a badge of honor, which has led to a new term for the common office workaholic: “work martyrs.”
You know, the ones who can’t eat a meal without scrolling through their email and humblebrag about how many hours they worked last night or over the weekend. Even though we all intuitively understand the need for downtime in this digitally connected, always-on world, why do so many people still equate hours worked with increased productivity? Does working longer hours mean you’re actually more productive?
Signs all point to no. Research that attempts to quantify the relationship between hours worked and productivity found that employee productivity drops after a 50-hour work week, and falls off a cliff after 55 hours — so much so that someone who puts in 70 hours produces nothing more with those extra 15 hours.
So where’s the balance? How do you reach this utopian state of working hard while maintaining positivity and happiness?
Productivity is About Quality Not Quantity
In order to answer these questions, we have to start by looking at the bigger problem: our quantity-over-quality–focused culture. The graph below from the OECD shows the relationship between productivity (GDP per hour worked) and annual working hours:
Most Americans consider a 37.5-hour work week short, and respond to days of low productivity by multitasking. In fact, the US is actually tied with France for most productive citizens — where France has 30 days of paid vacation, paid parental leave, and after-hours email is outlawed. In the US, 1 in 4 working Americans has no access to paid time off (PTO) of any kind, and those who do only have about 10 to 14 days on average.
According to Brigid Schulte, author of the book Overwhelmed, Americans have virtually no leisure time, and research has shown that when they do, they will often choose to work. She says, “Some say they work on weekends, evenings, and vacations because they’re anxious they’ll be seen as expendable if they don’t. Some work because they dread seeing their overstuffed email inboxes upon their return. And some work because it’s become a habit, an identity like a second skin, and they’ve lost the ability to imagine doing anything else.”
And yet, despite working so much more than other countries, US productivity reached an all-time low in the middle of 2016. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that productivity growth averaged 0.4% per year over the past five years — this growth being 82% below the average of the previous 60 years! Long story short: we’re working ever-increasing hours and are still massively unproductive. What’s the problem?
The data makes it pretty clear: working more does not equate to working productively. In fact, research has found that people who continuously work more than 60 hours a week make more mistakes. Stanford economist John Pencavel conducted research on individuals who work long hours and discovered something he calls a “productivity cliff” — the longer we work beyond 40 hours a week, the steeper the decline in productivity. We burn out, become exhausted, make more mistakes, and take two to three times as long to get anything done. In fact, more than half of US workers are a victim to burnout. Gallup reports that about 70% of all US workers are either disengaged at work or actively hate their jobs.
So how can we actually be more productive rather than just trying to look more productive by overworking and actually slowing our productivity down?
Ready for this myth-buster? Multitasking isn’t real. It’s simply switching from one task to another without completing anything. In fact, multitasking can actually lead to decreased productivity.
According to Schulte, “The brain can only pay attention to one thing at a time. And every time you switch tasks, you deplete your energy, willpower, and hit decision fatigue.” A study at King’s College, London University found that multitasking lowers our intelligence to the state of being stoned — we actually lose 10 IQ points. So next time you brag about how you’re an excellent multitasker, think twice and try one thing at a time!
Remember Positivity Comes Before Productivity
Shawn Achor, author of Before Happiness, Co-Founder & CEO of GoodThink, and TED Talk speaker, famously argues that in the workplace, happiness leads to success — not the other way around.
“The human brain at positive has an unfair advantage over that same brain at negative or neutral,” says Achor, who strives to show companies the science behind fueling productivity with happiness and positivity in the workplace. “When we are positive, we show a 31% increase in productivity, 40% increased likelihood to get a promotion, 23% fewer stress-related symptoms, 37% higher sales — the list goes on and on. The greatest competitive advantage in the modern economy is a positive and engaged workforce.”
So what are some positivity best practices we can start instilling in our workplace? Achor recommends practicing gratitude everyday. For example, writing a positive note or email thanking someone raises your social connection score. “Researchers have found that finding three new things you’re grateful for every day can move people dramatically on the optimism scale and raise their social connection score,” says Achor. He also claims that just 15 minutes of cardio a day, or 30 minutes three times a week, is the equivalent to taking an antidepressant.
Take Back Your “Leisure Time”
Stop looking at vacations as a sign of slacking off or lowering your career advancement opportunities. Research shows that the exact opposite is true: taking a vacation can actually increase your likelihood of earning a raise or promotion. So what’s stopping us?
In her book, Schulte discusses the importance of leisure time and how we need to preserve this “timeless flow space” in a world where everyone is constantly interrupted and fragmented. She describes this space as one where we become completely absorbed in the task at hand (something we genuinely love doing) and are ultimately at peace. During this time, we can reach optimal happiness as long as we don’t get interrupted. According to Schulte, our three biggest roadblocks to reaching this flow state are: work, mindset, and the “Culture of Busyness.” In an environment where the hardest workers are perceived as the most successful, where a work-first attitude is rewarded, and where being busy results in bragging rights, it’s difficult to motivate ourselves to prioritize leisure time.
In a study conducted by Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan from the Institute for Applied Positive, it was concluded that 94% of vacations result in higher levels of happiness and energy if you:
- plan a month in advance and notify your coworkers in advance
- go outside your city
- meet with a local host or other knowledgeable guide at the location
- have the travel details set before going
“Smart vacations lead to greater happiness and energy at work, and therefore, greater productivity, intelligence and resilience,” says Achor.
The Happiness Movement Starts With You
Now you know the (not-so) secrets to successful productivity. We can spew data and statistics all day long, but in the end, it’s up to managers and employees to change the conversation around happiness in the workplace. It’s never too late to improve your productivity and happiness!
Check out Shawn Achor’s TED Talk, The Happy Secret to Better Work:
Originally published on the Wrike blog.
About the author: Brianna Hansen is content marketing manager for Wrike, and is a work-life balance evangelist within the company.