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Are 80+ hour work weeks to be encouraged?

  • How many hours should a person work? Elon Musk made headlines recently when he took to twitter to controversially suggest that people should work 80-100 hours per week. "There are way easier places to work, but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week," Musk wrote in defence of his companies, before suggesting that people should work a sustained 80 hour work week and even peak at up to 100 hours. In the same tweet, he even admitted that people burn out heavily on that kind of schedule, noting that the "Pain level increases exponentially above 80."

    Striking a balance

    The debate over work-life balance is a common sight in industries undergoing digital transformation, with many large tech companies now competing for top talent by offering extreme flexibility and in-office perks rather than just higher salaries. Some disruptive tech companies are even turning traditionally office-bound roles into highly flexible remote positions in order to access a global talent pool for a fraction of the cost.

    They’re not just doing all of this out of the kindness of their hearts, though; the statistics show that a workforce without the stress of overworking is more productive and creative, with significantly lower incidence of anxiety and depression. Changing the world today often means developing technological solutions for some very complex problems, rendering the innovative capacity and creative freedom of a digital workforce of far more importance than how many hours each person puts in.

    The industrial model of throwing man-hours at a task should have gone out with the conveyor belt and the pickaxe. In today’s increasingly automated industries and global digital marketplaces, innovation and collaboration should come first. That next great idea can come from any employee or team, but it won’t happen if everyone’s working themselves into the ground.

    We can't all be at the top

    The idea that everyone should be working longer hours seems to be a common refrain from some of today's most successful and wealthy individuals, indicating a belief that they got to where they are today by personally working harder and that other people can and should follow their example.

    That idea of absolute personal responsibility for success doesn’t survive even the briefest scrutiny; it leaves no room for the factors of luck and timing inherent in business, downplays collaboration and the contributions of others, and dares to pretend that we live in a perfectly meritocratic society in which everyone has equal opportunity and gets no more or less than they deserve.

    It would be more than a little absurd to suggest that we could all be as successful as a billionaire CEO if we just doubled our workloads. It's also more than a little arrogant to think that changing the world is something that a single person (even a CEO) is responsible for, as if the collective efforts of the hundreds or thousands of employees on the ground making that change physically happen don’t count.

    Who benefits when you overwork?

    The question you really have to ask yourself when considering work-life balance is “who ultimately benefits from my additional work hours?” If you’re self-employed or have substantial ownership of the projects you’re working on, most of that work directly benefits you and most of the value generated stays with you.

    In voluntary roles and charity work, you can be similarly satisfied that your extra work benefits those in need. For the vast majority of working people, though, neither of those is true. Most of the value people generate through work belongs to their employer and may benefits the company’s owners,  shareholders, partners, core customers, and highest-paid employees more than it benefits them personally.

    We tend to romanticise the notion of the lone genius who builds a business empire out of nothing or changes the world with an invention, an algorithm, or just an idea. In reality, the innovations that have most shaped our world today have all been built on the hard work of countless qualified and competent people who don’t necessarily own much of the value they generate.

    Loving what you do is no excuse to overwork

    Work-life balance is of course about more than just financial benefit. Intrinsic motivations are much more powerful than overt incentives, and everyone has a dream job or project that they’d sacrifice a lot to work on. We see this sentiment in aphorisms such as “do what you love for a living and you’ll never work a day in your life,” but that too is often an excuse to justify asking people to work beyond their limits.

    Even Elon Musk tried to defend his suggested 80-hour week tweet with the unconvincing qualifier "But if you love what you do, it (mostly) doesn’t feel like work." While it’s certainly true that people who live and breathe their chosen careers are better placed to make an impact in their fields than those just clocking their time for a paycheck, everyone needs downtime and time to have a normal life outside of work.

    I myself develop computer games for a living and would consider it my dream job, and yet over the years I’ve burned out several times from pushing myself too far with 100-hour weeks. It’s hard to tell yourself that you’re “doing what you love for a living” when burnout occurs, and it always leads to periods of low productivity and stifled innovation that negate a lot of the extra effort you’ve put in.

    Should 80+ hour work weeks be encouraged?

    The health risks of overworking and negative impacts on home life have been widely researched, and the benefits of piling on the extra hours are often unclear at best. The digital age has rendered the industrial model of productivity obsolete across many sectors, and today’s most productive tech organisations are those that embrace collaborative innovation and look after the mental health of their employees.

    Always ask yourself who benefits most when you work longer hours, and beware of thinking that working at your dream company or being in your dream role is worth pushing yourself beyond your functional limits. Even if you own the company and are the main beneficiary of all the value your work generates, the risk of burning out when you get the work-life balance wrong makes overworking a dangerous choice.

    About the author

    Brendan is a Sync NI writer with a special interest in the gaming sector, programming, emerging technology, and physics. To connect with Brendan, feel free to send him an email or follow him on Twitter.

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