How Much Work Is Too Much? Four Guidelines to Save Your Productivity

“More men are killed by overwork than the importance of the world justifies.” – Rudyard Kipling, British author

The Japanese have a word for working too much: karoshi. It’s applied to people who literally work themselves to death… or suicide because they can’t keep up. Japan’s intense work culture encourages overwork, to the point where families of victims can sue the government and the victim’s company for compensation.

In Western languages, there’s no equivalent for karoshi, nor do we officially recognize it as a cause of death—but it happens. Instead, we say those workers died from exhaustion, failed to care of themselves, used too many stimulants, or suffered sudden strokes or heart attacks. But those are just results; they don’t address the root cause of people working too many hours.

It’s increasingly obvious that, in our search for ever more productivity, there’s a point of diminishing returns we cannot physically overcome. Add this to the serious effects overwork has on your body, and it becomes clear that you can in fact, work too many hours. Consider these guidelines while trying to determine how much work is too much for you:

  1. Workweek longer than 50 hours are rarely productive.  Studies reveal that productivity improves as you dial up from 30 to 50 hours, but after about 50 hours of work per week, benefits decrease with each extra hour until, at about 55 hours, productivity drops. Some people keep improving until 65 hours or so; but on average, those who work 70 hours-plus are no more productive than those who cap their workweek at 55 hours. Needless to say, excess work leaves us too little time to rest and mentally recharge our batteries.

    Not everyone has the same number of optimal work hours per week. Your “Goldilocks Zone” may be around 60, while turning in superb productivity the whole way, or it may be 45 hours a week—even less. Reflect on past experience, and if necessary, experiment with your workweek’s length until you determine your personal Goldilocks zone—and stick to it.

  2. Working long hours hurts your mental health. Clearly, the classic 40-hour workweek was chosen for good reason. Indeed, a 2017 study of nearly 8,000 Australian workers showed their mental health degraded after an average of just 39 hours. Meanwhile, the British Mental Health Organization puts the average number of work hours before “emotional” degradation at 49. This variation may represent cultural differences, a slight variance in what the organizations measured, or sample bias, as the Australian sample included more women than men. Because women in the study tended to care for children and do housework more often than men, most already work longer hours than men. This study suggested that working women start to suffer after an average of 34 work hours.

  3. Working long hours increases your cardiac risk. A meta-study of almost 604,000 people published in the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet in October 2015, demonstrated that those working longer hours significantly increased the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke (with stroke more likely). The researchers based this conclusion on 25 other studies in Europe, the USA, and Australia, with 55 hours again proving the “magic number,” past which the risk of heart attack and stroke increased by one-third. Some sources assume this refers to 11-hour workdays spread over a five-day workweek; but in fact, the 55 hours can occur over a full seven-day week and prove just as dangerous.

  4. Occasional “crunch times” are okay, but only for a couple of weeks at a time. We’ve all gone through periods when we had to work harder than normal to finish a project on time, to get a product out the door, to cover for others during flu season. You might end up working a flurry of 12-14 hours days for a couple of weeks, including weekends. That’s generally okay, because most people are sprinters: we can run full tilt for a little while and make excellent progress before we need to rest. Too many weeks of overtime, though, will likely overwhelm your ability to perform.

Your Work/Life Balance is More Important Than Ever

If working an extreme number of hours actually increased performance, it would be worth it; but it does not—at least beyond a certain point. More than 55 hours of work per week tires out average people mentally and physically, ruining their productivity. The lesson here is to cut back to your Goldilocks Zone before you overdo it. No matter how productive you can temporarily become by working longer, harder, and smarter, you won’t be productive at all if you’re sick or burned out.


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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