How the Culture of Overwork Is Damaging Your Productivity and Your Health

How many hours you work is the wrong metric. Focus on how much you get done.

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How many hours do you work per week? Are you proud of that number?

If you're like most American professionals, the more hours you work, the more pride you feel in your efforts. This is especially common among entrepreneurs, and has even led to a phenomenon called "busy bragging." Professionals either boast about how many hours they've worked, or exaggerate how many hours they work to feel or seem more important.

Why is this the case? Part of it stems from basic values of American culture, which you probably recognize in your own life. Americans value time, and try to make their best use of it -- after all, time is money (and we also value money). We also love the idea of the "American dream," in which people, through hard work and determination alone, are able to achieve wealth and prosperity. We see success as achievable only through hard work, and by extension, hours and effort.

Combine that with the fact that work emails are checked around the clock thanks to constantly improving technology and the newly named phenomenon of "telepressure," and you have a culture of overwork, which values people based on how many hours they log, how few breaks they take and how much effort they expend.

On the surface, this seems like a good thing, a motivating force that's helping American entrepreneurs get more done. But in reality, it's damaging your productivity.

Related: To Get More Done at Work, This Productivity Exec Says You Need to Get Deliberate

Diminishing returns.

Up to a certain point, adding more hours to your work week results in an expected increase in the amount of work you actually get done, according to at least one study. However, there's a sharp drop-off around the 50-hour mark.

If you work 50 hours or more in a week, your productivity (the total amount of tasks you get done) begins to decline relative to the number of hours you work. This effect increases dramatically as you add more hours to your work schedule, to the point where a person working 70 hours a week, routinely, won't get much more done than a person working 55 hours a week.

So why is this the case? What's happening here?

Related: Employees Are 'Exhausted' by the Constant Need to Check Email After Hours, Study Finds


Part of the problem is sheer tiredness. As you might expect, when fatigue rises, productivity tends to fall. When you start working upwards of 50 hours a week, you start losing time for quality sleep and rest in your life. After all, you have other, personal responsibilities to handle.

Lack of sleep combined with near-constant expenditure of mental energy results in a steadily increasing feeling of tiredness that caffeine can't counteract. The quality of your work will decline. You'll have trouble learning and remembering new things, and you'll be slower in everything you do.

Related: Stressed and Exhausted? More Than Half of Founders Say They Never 'Switch Off.'


When you have hundreds of things on your to-do list, you can't help but multitask in at least some ways (and as you have heard, multitasking is counterproductive). You might be thinking about how you're going to get your latest sales report done when you're in the middle of a marketing meeting, or you might check your email while on the phone with a client.

Working long hours and constantly accepting more tasks puts you in a no-win position. You're forced to do more things, but as you add more things to do, you do those things less efficiently.

Related: The Fallacy of Multitasking


Working those long hours, without time for breaks or vacation, also means you'll inch yourself closer to feelings of burnout. Weekends, nights of rest, and periods of vacation that last multiple days are all important for decompressing your mind and giving you a break from the job.

If you're constantly exposed to the job, with no such break, you'll eventually resent it. Your passion for your work with decline and, ultimately, that means a decline in your productivity.

Related: How to Recognize and Beat Burnout

Health consequences

Finally, understand that putting in too many hours or too much effort will result in health complications. You'll be more susceptible to illnesses, and your feelings of wellness will decline. This means you'll take more sick days, you'll spend more time at the doctor and you'll end up with even more work to catch up on.

Hard work is not a bad thing and there is nothing wrong with being proud of the hours you work and the effort you expend. The danger is prioritizing the amount of work you do rather than the quality of work you do and your health.

As with most things, it's all about balance, so try to "zoom out" from the demands of our culture of overwork, and set yourself up for a healthier, more productive style of work.

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