Productivity vs. Overworking

Posted on Jan 7, 2019 - By Bianca Benedi

Finding a balance between maximizing productivity without overworking employees is a challenge. Managers often struggle with calculating an employee’s productivity. Easy-to-track measurements like time spent in the office become substitutes for actual productivity metrics. In fact, employees who put in 80 hours of work a week are probably not getting much more done than employees putting in 50 to 55 hours a week. Studies show managers cannot determine the difference between an employee who puts in legitimate overtime and an employee who fakes additional overtime. This demonstrates that time spent in the office does not serve as proof of productivity. Companies must determine how to encourage efficient use of an employee’s time instead of encouraging employees to overwork themselves needlessly.

On the surface, the best way to increase productivity seems to be to ask employees to do more. After all, more work and longer hours must mean more gets done, right? In fact, research indicates that too much demand will only hinder an employee’s performance, not improve it. Vacation time, adequate lunches and a reasonable workday schedule contribute to an employee’s productivity by decreasing, rather than increasing, the expected workload. With adequate time to recharge and get into the right frame of mind, employees are more likely to deliver their best work.

The Bell Curve of Productivity

When it comes to maximizing productivity, demanding more and more becomes less effective over time. Researchers have found that after a certain peak of about 55 hours, additional work becomes significantly less productive. This is because employees are sacrificing sleep and personal time to prioritize work assignments. Tired employees are more error-prone, more easily agitated and more likely to become sick. They have more difficulty communicating with and understanding co-workers or executing sound judgment. Overworked employees aren’t just less productive – they can become an outright liability for companies.

Another issue comes in identifying who is most productive. Managers often confuse putting in more hours for working harder, and American employees are often keen to pass it off as such. However, just working longer hours does not ensure that an employee is more productive. Employees putting in extra hours may be doing so to put on a demonstration for higher-ups. However, a demonstration of hard work does not necessarily translate into more work getting done. Workplaces may reward employees who put on a show without recognizing those who make the most productive use of their time.

In fact, 55 hour work weeks are too much for most employees. The vast majority of working Americans require seven to eight hours of sleep to be adequately rested. Taking into account average commuting times, employees can rarely increase hours without negatively impacting their sleep schedule. A growing body of research demonstrates that giving employees adequate time to recharge improves productivity and morale while decreasing turnover. Paid time off, holidays, lunch hours and eight-hour work days all ensure that an employee does not experience burnout.

Protecting the Busy Employees

A common issue associated with productivity is the habit for a few people to carry the weight of the team. These chronic over workers are often recognized as the most dedicated and productive members of the team. As a result, the hardest or most urgent assignments are often passed to those team members. Unwilling to turn down assignments or miss opportunities for career development, such employees are at great risk of burnout. However, management often aggravates the situation by reinforcing whatever official or unofficial policies bring the work of multiple people to one desk.

If you have an employee that is assigned the toughest projects or volunteers to take on all the extra work, you may have a dedicated staff member. However, you may also have to step in and intentionally reduce that employee’s workload to prevent burnout. Employees that throw themselves into their work and put in consistently long hours may take on a larger workload voluntarily. However, even a voluntarily heavy work load will eventually interfere with an employee’s personal life. Inevitably, either their productivity or morale will take a hit.

Managers may be tempted to heavily rely on their best and most productive employees. However, they should instead take time to evaluate the workloads of their best performers. By ensuring that an employee is not taking on too much at once, a manager can ensure morale and productivity remain high. Along with balancing an employee’s workload, managers should also offer raises, promotions and public recognition to high achievers to maintain morale.

How to Balance Productivity With Rest

Striking a balance between maximizing productivity and giving employees space to recharge is an important, albeit difficult, task for managers. Employers should encourage employees to take advantage of annual PTO, avoid bringing work home and to take their full lunch breaks whenever possible. While overtime may sometimes be necessary, companies should be careful in how much overtime they request or expect. Employees working more than 50 hours a week begin exhibiting signs of overwork, and above 55 hours their productivity drops significantly.

More than half of Americans leave unused vacation days at the end of the year. Managers should encourage employees to take their vacation time to recharge. Even if employees don’t wish to travel, stay-at-home vacations enable employees to disconnect from the office and explore personal interests. Even catching up on sleep can help an employee regain energy and commitment to the workplace.  Additionally, a majority of Americans also tend to eat lunch at work or skip the midday break entirely. Managers should encourage employees to take their full lunch break and get out of the office. By doing so, they will likely see an uptick in afternoon productivity rather than an end-of-day slump.

Finally, managers should look at the daily schedules, overall workload and productivity rate of individual employees. By identifying the hard workers and the overachievers, managers can ensure workloads are fairly distributed and expectations remain reasonable. In doing so, they are likely to gain or reaffirm trust from their employees. The best employees aren’t skipping sleep and spending all day in the office. They’re giving their all during the day and going home when the workday is complete.