Does working more actually benefit anyone?

manuelsaez-daybed-chairIn a simple world, we would suppose that if you work more you will produce more, hence earn yourself and your company more. This is also the slogan of President Sarkozy, with which he wants to boost the country and the population’s budgets. If you work more the company should pay you more. Fair enough. But do you actually earn your company more by working longer hours?

This is an extremely complicated question,  which depends of course on what it is you do for a living, but here I want to sow the seeds of doubt that working more actually benefits someone, and most importantly not yourself. Let us start with a resumé of  the recent history of working hours in France, by summarising Jeanne Fagnani (CNRS) who researches the subject.

In 1998 (to 2000), the socialist party introduced an across the board 35h work week in France. Partly to improve the work-life balance and partly to create more jobs though sharing. Presumably it did contribute to the reduction of the traditionally relatively high unemployment rate of around 10%, but as always, it is hard to say what exactly triggered the improvement. As for the work-life balance, the increased flexibility actually made life more complicated (linking work times to school times), and in some cases actually deteriorated due to imposed atypical working times. None the less, France has the highest fertility rate on the continent and the highest percentage of working women. Even if not everyone is happy about the life-work balance, the government must be on to something here.

So the unemployment went down and people managed to even out their life-work balance, all because of the 35h work week? For management, who now has to work longer hours, there was even some compensation in that productivity per hour  of staff had increased!

So by working less, people have become more productive. Of course the counter point is that they are under more pressure to do so. French full-time employees actually work an average of 38.3h a week (compared to 43.5h in the UK), making it about the shortest working week in Europe. But does a shorter week really equal a more productive week? It appears to help.

In a recently published research in the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers tried to establish a relationship between health (mental and physical) and working hours by testing  British public servants at Whitehall over a  5 year interval. They found that working longer hours (i.e. over 40h a week) tended to reduce your fluid intelligence (more than natural decline), that is your cognitive processes such as memory, attention and speed of information processing (which in term is linked to abstract thinking, creativity, novel problem solving). In other , more layman, words: it makes you dumber.

The research also looked at crystallised intelligence, which is supposed to increase  for most of your life through education, occupational and cultural experience. The Whitehall staff with normal working hours remained constant, as expected, but those who were on the overtime actually scored lower. Why? They could be working longer hours because of their limited cognitive skills, or their longer working hours provoke it due to the more limited worldly exposure. Either way, working longer hours will not help the situation.

But not only that, but overwork can be associated with cardiovascular disease, diabetes, fatigue and depression. In the long term, the risk in old age of dementia or premature death increases.

In part, this new research merely confirms our idea that you can work yourself to death. On top of that, the idea that working hard actually makes you less effective and reduces your mental skills is also not so surprising. But let us now turn back to France, and the 35h week, to see who is doing what.

If the 35h week has reduced working hours for the population at large, this would be beneficial for both productivity and the life-work balance. As the French are the longest living Europeans, with the highest female fertility rate, we have some of this research confirmed. But what about  the upper echelons of our organisations, where the most hours are clocked? They work long, and have working conditions similar to Whitehall (i.e. offices). They, management, are the ones whose jobs have become more complicated.

It is a worrying thought that management’s reasoning capabilities are presumably decreasing as they climb up the ladder, even besides the other worrying health issues. This, in turn, will have a negative impact on the future of companies. Formulated differently, if you thought (big) companies were badly run before, they must have become worse since 2000,  since the 35h law in force.

The discussion on the future of the 35h work week, and research into overworking reiterate traditional choices of economy or family. Working more to earn more, might end up being working a whole lot more for a little more money as your productivity decreases. And with the little extra you might have trouble covering the extra health drawbacks. The 35h was the right track, but needs more fine-tuning, to smooth out those who found their working lives conflicting more with their family lives rather than less. And, to let that balanced life be available to all, including management. If we want a productive bright future, they too will need to slow down one way or another. Working less may or may not have created jobs, but it did improve lives and increase productively. This is the right path and the President should take note. President Sarkozy? Are you still here?

(Update: he seems to have left to his next meeting mumbling that he never understood what overwork was anyway. Perhaps a consequence of working too many hours…)

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