Working less, gaining more: the neuroscience of productivity

Posted on January 24, 2014. Filed under: Attention Matters, Human Capital | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

In advance of our next working breakfast with fatigue expert Thea O’Connor (28 March 2014 in Brisbane), we are exploring themes related to fatigue management, human capital, and productivity.  Adair Jones, a Brainwaves for Leaders staff writer, questions the high cost of working too much and cites one hundred and fifty years of research that shows shorter work hours actually raise productivity and profit. 




In the 19th Century, unions called  for shorter working hours and, when their demands were heeded, productivity rose. By 1914, Henry Ford took the radical step of doubling workers’ pay and cutting shifts from nine to eight hours. Business boomed. In 1939, the New Deal enshrined the 40-hour work week. Throughout the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50, studies conducted by businesses, universities, industry associations, and even the military questioned the wisdom of this policy. But by the 1960s, the benefits of the 40-hour week were accepted beyond question in corporate America. The productivity gains of reduced hours were too beneficial to ignore.

By the 1980s, unfortunately, this trend began to reverse. Grinding out hundred-hour weeks helped bankers think of themselves as tougher and more dedicated than everyone else — deserving of the high incomes they were commanding. According to James Surowiecki, a journalist writing on financial matters, working fifteen hours a day doesn’t just demonstrate your commitment to a company; it also reinforces that commitment. “Over time,” he writes, “the simple fact that you work so much becomes proof that the job is worthwhile, and being in the office day and night becomes a kind of permanent initiation ritual.”

With the Global Financial Crisis, working longer hours for less pay and with fewer resources has become all too familiar, not just for investment bankers and lawyers, but for everyone. People are doing everything they can to hold onto their jobs. When asked to work extra hours, they often feel they are in no position to refuse.

Industrial workers v knowledge workers

man and machineWhy the shift? Most of the studies showed that industrial workers have eight good, reliable hours a day in them. Paying for ten hours produces no additional output, only tired out employees. More importantly, a growing mountain of data shows that catastrophic accidents data  — the kind that disable workers, damage capital equipment, shut down the lines, open the company to lawsuits, and upset shareholders — are far more likely to occur when workers are working overtime and are overtired.

As developed countries moved from industry-based to knowledge-based economies, however, this thinking changed. Since knowledge workers sit at desks, safety issues have receded. Employers assume that since the work is less physically taxing, people can handle more hours at work.

In fact, research shows that knowledge workers actually have fewer good hours in a day than manual laborers do — on average, about six hours, as opposed to eight. It might sound strange, but if you’re a knowledge worker, the truth of this may become clear if you think about your own typical work day. There’s a good chance that you probably turn out five or six good, productive hours of hard mental work; and then spend the other two or three hours on the job in meetings, answering e-mail, making phone calls, and so on. You can stay longer if your boss asks; but after six hours, all he’s really got left is a body in a chair. Your brain has already clocked out and gone home.

The other thing about knowledge workers is that they’re exquisitely sensitive to even minor sleep loss. Research by the US military has shown that losing just one hour of sleep per night for a week will cause a level of cognitive degradation equivalent to a .10 blood alcohol level. Even worse, most people who’ve fallen into this state typically have no idea of just how impaired they are. It’s only when you look at the dramatically lower quality of their output that it shows up.

Evan Robinson, a software engineer with a long interest in programmer productivity, writes: “If they came to work that drunk, we’d fire them — we’d rightly see them as a manifest risk to our enterprise, our data, our capital equipment, us, and themselves. But we don’t think twice about making an equivalent level of sleep deprivation a condition of continued employment.”

overworked knowledge workerAnd the potential for catastrophic failure can be every bit as high for knowledge workers as it is for labourers. Poor decision-making by over-tired, over-worked staff have been implicated in the Challenger and  Exxon Valdez disasters. There is a huge body of research on life-threatening errors made by severely fatigued medical residents. Clearly, we can’t keep this up.

A new order

According to an article by Jordan Cohen and Julian Birkinshaw for Harvard Business Review,  knowledge workers can’t be managed in the ways that worked for manual workers. Since knowledge workers own the means of production — their brains — large-scale re-engineering programs, productivity drives, and changes to the incentive system are unlikely to work, the authors claim.

They can easily be resisted, ignored or gamed. But just letting your knowledge workers figure things out for themselves isn’t a good model either — it is an abrogation of your responsibilities as a manager, and it allows people to either shirk their duties or lose focus chasing too many priorities.

Their research and work with companies suggest three broad approaches to try:

Change a specific behaviour.  Enact a sharp, focused ‘decree’. For example, institute “no email Wednesdays” to get people to talk to each other. Or put in place a standing-only rule in meetings, to keep them focused and short. Such decrees can be risky — by forcing people out of their daily routine, you are bound to upset a few of them. For a decree to work, you need to have a good reason to do it and be able to enforce it effectively. You might also position your decree as temporary — a way of forcing a change in behavior for a few months or a year. In all likelihood, the “temporary” change will rewire new habits in the brains of your employees.

Build smart support systems. Smarter support systems are intended to de-bureaucratize work and to help people prioritize more value-added work. According to Cohen and Birkinshaw, while they take some time to work through, their benefits are likely to be felt for many years. The biggest impact is the ease in which an employee can summon support and the increased motivation that results in getting back to doing what is interesting and impactful work. You might eliminate top-down oversight and institute a peer review system, for example.

leadbyexampleLead by example. A third approach is to follow Gandhi’s dictum: be the change you wish to see in the world. Leading by example is about getting people to take responsibility for their own effectiveness. By pushing for significant changes in the balance of responsibility between your knowledge workers and the people who are nominally above them in the corporate hierarchy, you can help the knowledge workers to become more effective in their work.

Continuing to demand longer and longer working hours does nothing but depletes resources from of the human capital pool without replenishing them. In order to create a more sustainable world, we need to talk about how to live low-stress, balanced work lives that leave us refreshed, strong, and able to carry on as economic contributors for a full four or five decades-long career. We’ve done it before with positive results; we can do it again.


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Adair Jones is a writing and communications expert with over 20 years experience. She contributes regularly to newspapers, magazines and online journals and has won awards for her fiction. Writing about developments in neuroscience is her latest adventure. 



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3 Responses to “Working less, gaining more: the neuroscience of productivity”

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[…] In advance of our next working breakfast with fatigue expert Thea O'Connor (28 March 2014 in Brisbane), we are exploring themes related to fatigue management, human capital, and productivity. Adai…  […]

Bravo Adair! Thank you for comparing our current situation to the the labor movement of the last century. People think we were done with that, but we are just only now beginning to take this understanding to a new level. Our body’s wouldn’t put up with the abuse 100 years ago. Now we can see that neither will the mind. This is a work rennaissance and as you know so well, the science supports it.

Thanks, Ruth! The economic rationalists among us are squelching the very mind space needed to be innovative and creative problem solvers. Love to hear your stories. Adair

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