Why Working Less May Make You More Productive

August 6, 2019

Working long hours can be dangerous for mental and physical health. Overwork has been linked to everything from poor communication skills and decreased productivity to impaired sleep and depression.

Yet despite this, employees are working more and longer hours. According to recent surveys, modern workers are putting in longer hours than at any time since statistics have been kept.

With increasing pressure to perform, higher expectations, and more competition, productivity is more important than ever to employees and leaders alike. Unfortunately, too many executives and managers are following an outdated idea of what it means to be productive.

More hours worked doesn’t necessarily mean more (or better) output. In fact, the easiest way to help an overworked team be more productive may be to help them work less.

Burnout Is a Workplace Epidemic (and It Might Be Your Fault)

The result of working too much is always the same for employees: stress, frustration, and eventually, burnout. But how do they reach this point?

To understand the impact of overwork, first we need to understand why people are working more. When it comes down to it, there are only two possible reasons why employees would be burning the midnight oil:

  1. Their managers are forcing them to
  2. They feel like they have to

While these might sound like the same thing, there’s a key difference between them.

Making employees work too much is a management issue—a sign of toxic workplaces where employees have no choice but to be overworked. They fear their jobs will disappear if they don’t work longer and harder than everyone else.

One example comes from a New York Times article that outlines the management practices at Amazon. In the story, the writer describes a work culture where employees “toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by a text message asking why they were not answered), and are held to standards that the company boasts are unreasonably high.”

If this is what your workplace is like, you need to make some serious changes to your culture and leadership. (Amazon claims the article “misrepresented” their company.)

Celebrating the always-on hustle culture does nothing but stress out your employees and can even hurt your bottom line. In a study of salespeople, those who rated themselves as “happy” and less stressed increased sales by 37 percent!

26 percent of all work is done outside of normal working hours.

But what about the second issue? Why are employees burning out in workplaces that aren’t forcing them to work long hours?

The answer is more complicated and comes down to a combination of unfocused work time, guilt, ambition, uncertainty, and a desire to prove themselves in a competitive marketplace.

When the data team at RescueTime analyzed 185 million hours of working time, they discovered that most workers average just 2 hours and 48 minutes of productive time per day—a far cry from the 8 hours we all think we have. And because employees have less time for productive work than they think during the workday, many end up taking work home. In fact, RescueTime found that 26 percent of all work is done outside of normal working hours.

Whether it’s the fault of your organization’s management style or hustle culture, if your employees are overworking they are getting burnt out. They’re stressed, unfocused, and distracted, which means they’ll end up working longer hours but getting less done in that time.

It’s a lose-lose.

Not only is this inefficient, it can lead to increased turnover. According to a 2014 survey by job site Monster, 42 percent of employees have quit a job rather than face burnout.

Three ways to help your team do more (and work less)

What can you do to help your team feel less stressed and get more done?

The book Time, Talent, and Energy identifies three trends in companies with the highest levels of burnout:

  • Excessive collaboration
  • Weak time management principles
  • A tendency to overload the most capable with too much work

As co-author Eric Garton writes, “These forces not only rob employees of time to concentrate on completing complex tasks or for idea generation, they also crunch the downtime that is necessary for restoration.”

To give your employees more time, focus, and productivity, you need to help them disconnect from these issues. Let’s look at how you can do that:

1. Reduce collaboration: Identify the collaborative processes and company practices that lead to burnout

According to research published in Harvard Business Review, time spent on collaboration has ballooned in recent decades by more than 50 percent. But while there are positive aspects to collaboration, there’s a dark side as well.

The researchers found that employees at most companies spend up to 80 percent of their days in meetings, on the phone, and responding to emails, “leaving employees little time for all the critical work they must complete on their own.”

Many of the processes and policies you put in place to help employees are in fact leading to burnout. Instead, you need to identify those policies and trim them back. Here are two ways.

First, follow the lead of managers at Dropbox who eliminated all recurring meetings for a two-week period and then re-booked only the ones they found were actually needed. (The result? After two years, Dropbox had tripled its employees but meetings were shorter and more productive.)

Next, try this trick from Facebook’s VP of Product, Fidji Simo, who changed her default meeting duration from 60 minutes to just 15. This way, it’s up to the organizer to carefully consider whether more time is really needed.

2. Build better time management practices: Work with your team to set realistic expectations

While writing his book Master The Moment, Pat Burns interviewed employees at 50 companies and discovered that many of the time management issues employees face can be traced back to poor leadership, including:

  • Not knowing what work to prioritize
  • Having trouble saying no even when their workload is full
  • Feeling overwhelmed with too many tasks
  • Procrastinating or not finishing what they start because timelines aren’t clearly set
  • Always being in reactive mode due to an unclear strategy

Most employee time management issues like these result from uncertainty. Team members don’t know where to put their efforts and so they try to take on everything.

Learn about other causes, symptoms, and solutions for employee burnout.

Instead, help them establish a productive daily routine that balances time for heads-down work with staying up to date on emails and meetings. Try time blocking, or even something as simple as setting aside mornings for focused work, leaving only afternoons available for meetings and calls.

3. Reduce the workload on your best workers: Develop policies and rituals to help them disconnect at the end of the day

Protecting your team from burnout isn’t just about what happens at work. It’s also about their ability to disconnect at the end of the day. Research has consistently found that people who are able to disconnect from work are less fatigued and have far lower rates of procrastination, greater engagement at work (i.e. flow), and a better quality of life.

The easiest way to help your team disconnect from work is to simply let them know it’s OK for them to push back or speak up when they’re overloaded.

As Eric Garton writes in the Harvard Business Review, “Most often, employees are left on their own to figure out how to manage their time in ways that will reduce stress and burnout. They have limited ability to fight a corporate culture in which overwork is the norm and even celebrated.”

Changing your company culture like this has to start from the top. Create policies and rituals that promote work-life balance and recognize (but don’t celebrate) when people are putting in necessary long hours.

Balance Benefits Everyone

According to most studies (and most anecdotal evidence too), the more people find work-life balance, the more productive, creative, and happy they become. Helping your employees avoid overwork and disconnect from their jobs appropriately is a win-win. They will enjoy greater health, wellbeing, and job satisfaction, and you will see them do more of their best work in less time.

About the Author

Jory MacKay is an award-winning freelance writer and editor of the RescueTime blog. You can find his writing on Fast Company, Quartz, The Next Web, Lifehacker, and more.

Guest Blogger