How many hours do we really need to work?

It wasn’t too long ago that more leisure time was seen as a sign of success. The more wealthy you were, the more you could afford to spend time relaxing or engaging in hobbies, rather than working for someone else.

The assumption was that this trend would continue, and people with more privilege and higher status would end up spending little time working and lots of time relaxing.

It hasn’t turned out that way, though. While America’s levels of overworking keep climbing, research points out that overworking is actually linked to privilege. Those of us with the highest status jobs and highest salaries are more likely to be overworked.

And overworking isn’t just bad for our hobbies or our efforts to keep up with Game of Thrones. It’s bad for our health, too. And, perhaps even worse, it doesn’t even help us get ahead.

Most of us are wasting our time working extra hours that don’t help our careers but hurt our health and keep us away from our family and friends. Let’s take a look at how many productive hours we can actually work a week.

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Why overworking won’t help you get ahead

Perhaps the most shocking example I found of the futility of overworking was from a study that found managers couldn’t tell which of their employees worked 80 hours per week and who just pretended to work 80 hours. So if you’re overworking in the hopes of impressing your boss and landing a raise or a promotion, you may be wasting your time.

On the other hand, maybe you’re just pressed for time and your to-do list is never-ending, so you’re working long hours to get everything done. Unfortunately, even this unselfish reason for overworking is futile.

Studies have shown that working more hours increases your productivity only to a point. That point seems to be around 49 hours. So if you’re working 60-, 70-, or 80-hour weeks, it’s very unlikely your output is actually much more than you’d get done in a 50-hour week.

working-hours-quote

This is because we eventually hit the point of diminishing returns, which means everything we put in after that point results in a smaller and smaller output. Research shows if you’re working 70+ hours per week, you can reduce your hours to around 50 and get almost the same result. But on the upside, you’ll get more sleep, be less prone to burnout, and have more time to spend with friends and family.

I mentioned earlier that overworking is dangerous for our health. In case working longer and not getting more work done isn’t enough to convince you to cut back the late nights at the office, perhaps the health implications will change your mind.

While causation hasn’t been proven, research does show a link between employees who are overworked and a higher risk of both stroke and coronary heart disease. Other studies have also found working long hours is linked to an increased risk of fatigue, general poor health, and cardiovascular disease.

Overworking can also increase levels of absenteeism and turnover, and make us worse at interpersonal communication, managing our emotional reactions, and making judgment calls.

And since long hours tend to go hand-in-hand with fewer hours of sleep, overworking also tends to correlate with making more mistakes at work. Depending on your job, these mistakes could be costly to yourself, your company, and your customers.

Shorter working hours aren’t necessarily the answer

While it might seem like I’m arguing for shorter workdays or workweeks, that’s not necessarily the answer. Researchers are exploring the idea of shorter working hours, and a study in Sweden showed promising results in both worker happiness and health, as well as productivity. But while this experiment reduced the cost of sick pay and created new jobs, the costs of hiring more employees to cover the missing hours makes this approach somewhat prohibitive.

Dr. Aram Seddigh from Stockholm University’s Stress Research Institute says a six-hour workday might be best suited to particular industries:

I think the six-hour work day would be most effective in organisations—such as hospitals—where you work for six hours and then you just leave and go home.

It might be less effective for organisations where the borders between work and private life are not so clear.

Economic security could also reduce the incidence of overworking, and thus the downsides that come with it, as many people work longer hours when they’re worried about the stability of their employment. As the economy struggles with higher numbers of job seekers than available jobs, more employees feel the need to work overtime simply to keep their jobs, regardless of the health risks or lack of appreciable output that results.

But the best answer may not even be related to the actual number of hours we work.

Flexible hours could be the solution

Other options could include more flexibility in working hours, allowing employees to choose working hours that suit their lifestyles better, and to work when they’re at their mental peaks. The downside of this approach, however, is that flexible working hours and working remotely can lead to overwork just as easily as regular office hours. As freelance marketer Claire Autruong says, “the same technology and mindset that lets us stay flexible can also compel us to flex right back into work at any time.”

When she started working as a freelancer from home, Autruong found she ended up working far more than was healthy. The answer, ironically, was to schedule a regular 40-hour work week, even though she had the flexibility to work whenever she wanted:

… when I switched back to the dreaded 40 [hours], I felt like I was betraying all the workers ahead of me who blazed the trail leading to flexible work schedules and remote work.

But that’s why you’re looking for flexibility: to create the schedule that works for you.

Research has shown employees with options for flexible working arrangements show greater job satisfaction and commitment to their companies, as well as being less likely to turnover. On the other hand, flexible working arrangements have also been shown to increase the likelihood of work interfering with family commitments.

As I’ve said before, “the flexibility that allows us to be the masters of our own schedules also allows us to never fully turn off, even when it’s in our best interest to do so.”


While we might think we’d like to have more time off, when it comes down to it, we tend to spend more of our spare time working than we need to.

Whether you’re doing it to get ahead in your career, to impress your boss, or just to keep up with an ever-increasing workload, working more than 49 hours per week is unlikely to help you achieve those aims. Not only will you not get more done beyond this point, you’ll be putting your health at risk, as well.

If you have trouble heading out the door when your workday is done, keep in mind that overall you’ll be less likely to take sick days if you’re not overworked, which cost your company and put pressure on your colleagues. You’ll also be at less risk of serious health issues and you’ll be more productive in less time.

Whichever way you look at it, working a regular 40-hour week is the best approach to a productive and balanced working life.

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.