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Study: More Work Doesn't Mean More Productivity

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Last week, the chief executive of Lloyd’s Banking Group took a leave of absence, citing extreme fatigue due to overwork. Meanwhile, in China, a report issued at the end of October said nearly 100 officials died from overwork between 2008 and 2010.

And yet, new research highlighted by Bloomberg argues all these extra hours may not be doing anyone any good. According to the Harvard Business School study, allowing workers more time off actually results in both more job satisfaction and more productivity. Bad news for karoshi fans.

American workers' hours have risen steadily since World War 2. The country’s burgeoning consumer culture led people to work more hours to pay for bigger houses and nicer cars. This continued even after wages started flattening out, leading consumers to take on greater and greater levels of debt even as they worked long hours. In the late 1990s, American workers passed the Japanese in hours worked.

At the same time, workers in Europe started pushing for more leisure. Today, Europeans work 80-85% as many hours as Americans. In the Netherlands, a country with some of the fewest hours worked in the world, the average worker spends around 400 hours less per year in the office than his American counterpart. (Of course, we all know Europeans are lazy.)

Interestingly enough for Americans, moves by the Dutch to cut back on working hours actually led to a sizeable drop in unemployment and boosted overall productivity.

Meanwhile, in the US, fewer and fewer people take vacations every year. Yet data from the World Economic Forum shows that countries with more leisure time are just as competitive as we are. More hours worked also means more hours spent watching television, researchers say.

It seems unlikely that America, home of the Protestant work ethic, is headed for a major shift in work patterns anytime soon. That said, one unlikely group is jumping on the bandwagon. A few weeks ago, the New York Times reported that elite New York City schools—the ones famous for burying students in homework—were starting to decrease students’ workloads.

Maybe more employers should follow their lead.

(See also: We Americans Work Too Damn Hard! and The End of the 40-Hour Workweek)
POSITION:  No positions in stocks mentioned.