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So Many Hours: The Effect of Overworking in the Business World

Being a paramedic during the formative years of my working life, I’ve been surprised at how many of the lessons that I learned on the job have translated to the business world.

When I worked on the ambulance, 24 hour shifts were the most common. A standard rotation on our “modified Kelly” shift averaged out to a 56 hour core work week – some more, some less. Depending on where you worked, that would be 24 hours of running effectively nonstop, or a few calls, a nap during the day and a full night’s sleep. “EMS” was known as Earn Money Sleeping except on those unlucky nights.

When I was promoted from EMT to paramedic, I saw a substantial pay increase, and I took full advantage of it. I worked for effectively six months straight. At that time I was working on an 11-hour bus, so anything extra was overtime over my 44-hour core workweek. A 24 hour shift was a nice bonus, and two in a row plus another 11 hour shift on my days off made for a nice paycheck.

Other times when I was back on 24 hour cars, I would pick up additional 24 hour shifts during our rotation, so I would be on duty for 72 or occasionally 96 hours at a time. Most of the time it would work out – I’d get 5 or 6 hours per shift and be pretty functional. But then there were those shifts… It’s scary now to think about how hard I was pushing myself.

While we need staffed ambulances, sometimes sitting idly by at all hours of the day and night, there’s a growing body of evidence that indicates that we don’t need to be in the office the same way. Many of us push ourselves or work in cultures where the expectation is set that the workweek is 70-80 hours with availability on weekends as well. This is dangerous for the people that work that much, and for the companies that they work for.[1] The health effects from sleep deprivation, stress, and burnout are well known. There is also a correlation between excessive alcohol consumption and overwork.[2]

Surprisingly, there is evidence that shows that all those extra hours produce no increase in productivity.

Research has shown that managers can’t tell the difference between those who pretend to work 80 hours and those who actually do.[3] What can be seen, though, is degradation in all of the skills that make us good workers and good leaders when we become exhausted from overwork.

My own profession is notorious for crossing the line for demanding hours and 7-day workweeks. Many firms (mine excepted) view it as a performance indicator – working all of those hours is considered basic

table stakes, regardless of the ability of the employee to deliver exemplary service within a normal workweek.[1] There is also a gender discrimination component of this behavior that makes it a bit worse.

As leaders, we must monitor our expectations of our employees and ourselves, and do what’s right. More hours doesn’t increase output; research indicates a 32-hour workweek may be the sweet spot for productivity and creativity.[2] By allowing ourselves a real balance between work and life, we can give the most to both sides and be the most productive overall.

Other Sources: Hbr.org and Inc.com

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