The Razor’s Edge: Five Reasons to Avoid Too Much Overtime

“30 hours of working and still going stroooong.” – 24-year-old copywriter Mita Diran’s last Tweet, several hours before she lapsed into a coma and died.

One thing most Millennials figure out faster than workers of older generations is that work/life balance isn’t just important, it’s crucial. While exceptions like Miss Diran obviously exist, she is an exception, as much as the Generation X guys who ended up smoking pot in their parents’ basement all day.  Millennials do things differently because they’ve seen what overwork has done to their families. Workaholism, work-based illnesses, broken families, and downsizing is especially unattractive when you’re from the outside looking in.

Older managers often mourn the fact that Millennials usually put themselves first—when, ironically, it was that older generation who taught the Millennials to do so by providing a negative example. Stories like Diran’s just emphasize the need to take care of oneself first. And by the way, don’t assume she worked in a third-world sweatshop; she worked for the Indonesian branch of a well-regarded American company.

These five reasons illustrate why working too much overtime is a bad idea:

  1. Diminishing returns. Sometimes you have no choice but to put in 50-hour weeks during crunch time, but only do it during crunch time, and only for short periods. Humans do best as sprinters, not marathoners. Studies show most people who work strict 40-55 hour weeks perform much better than those who work 65 hours or more. As flesh-and-blood machines, we get tired, mentally and physically, damaging our productivity if we work for too long without significant breaks.

  2. Impaired Judgment. After about eight hours of work, fatigue and then exhaustion creep in. Mistakes and misjudgments begin to recur more often and start to accumulate. You end up spending more time redoing old work than doing new work, and it’s just not worth all the errors. Over a century ago, our ancestors advocated for and got shorter work-days and work-weeks. Employers soon realized their workers were more productive than ever and made the 40-hour work-week a standard. Lately, they’ve forgotten the fact that, as one journalist put it, “Quantity kills quality”.

  3. Not enough time to recharge. I won’t hit you over the head with the fact that too much work ruins your health. People are sick of hearing it because they know it and do it anyway. But how can you do good work when you go to work tired every day, haven’t let your brain clear itself of clutter, and haven’t recharged your interest and energy batteries?

  4. You look bad when it really matters. Most of us have had disastrous presentations or meetings where we came off looking like fools. Multiply the likelihood of this happening by several times when you’re overworked. You’re unlikely to look the picture of health, you’ll make more silly mistakes, your mind won’t be as sharp, and the work you present may not be your best. When making business presentations, sloppiness and absentmindedness can almost be worse than presenting the wrong facts, since appearance is so important in social settings.

  5. Others will think you’re slacking if you slow down. My colleagues and I have seen this happen more than once. A new talent bursts onto the scene, eager to show management they can do a great job and proceeds to work 60-65 hour weeks for the first few months. Then they get a life or start to burn out and cut back to 50 hours or less. Instead of working on weekends or holidays, they sleep in, catch movies, go out on dates, or just have fun. Suddenly they’re no longer the golden boy or girl. They’re looked upon as if they’re slacking, even though they’re not. People tend to see your slowdown, not your previous record OR the fact you’re still working as productively as ever.

Hard, But Not Too Hard

As an ambitious worker, you probably don’t mind hard work when it’s necessary. That’s fine when you combine hard work with working smarter. But busywork, or hours spent trying to conquer an ever-growing tower of legitimate work, won’t necessarily get you ahead, even if you’re working yourself to the bone. It can actually harm your productivity, and worse, the people you work for may not appreciate it when you slow down to take a breath. As the old Hoyt Axton song points out, “Work your fingers to the bone, what do you get? Boney fingers.”


About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

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