Think a 55-Hour Work Week Is More Productive? Guess What, It’s Not

Longer hours aren't making your workers more productive, but they could be causing dangerous fatigue.
By: | September 26, 2019

In the United States, the evolution of worker productivity often harkens images of workers streaming into factory assembly lines.

Engineered by automaker Henry Ford, the assembly line increased worker productivity and allowed the country to meet the massive demand for cars that sprung up in the early decades of the 20th Century.

As the assembly line approaches its 106th birthday, it’s important to consider the lingering effects that this fixation on productivity and 24-hour production has had on America’s work culture.

More and more workers report experiencing burnout, a job-related stress condition that often stems from the feeling that work doesn’t end at 5 p.m. With email constantly pinging on their phones, today’s workforce feels like they can’t get away from the office.

Pressure to work extended hours also exists among shift workers in health care, emergency response, construction and other industries. A Gallup survey puts the average American work week at 47 hours a week with nearly four in 10 respondents reporting that they work 50 hours a week.

While longer work weeks and extended shifts may seem like they increase productivity, the opposite is true, according to researchers.

As people work longer hours, they become more prone to fatigue, which decreases productivity and increases the risk of injury, according to the OSHA report “Long Work Hours, Extended or Irregular Shifts, and Worker Fatigue.”

The Report By the Numbers

  • Employees working longer hours aren’t working safer. The report notes that working more than 12 hours a day is associated with a 37% increased risk of injury.
  • Fatigue doesn’t just end when workers clock out either. A survey of 2,737 medical residents found that every scheduled extended shift in a month increased the risk of a car accident on the drive home by 16.2%.
  • The irregular and evening shifts that propel the forever-on-the-clock workday can be just as dangerous for workplace safety. Many of the most catastrophic workplace accidents, including the Texas City BP oil refinery explosion and the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, occurred at night.
  • Lack of productivity due to fatigue costs employers an estimated $136.4 billion annually.

Some Specifics

If working extended and irregular hours decreases productivity and increases the risk of injury, why is the practice still so prevalent?

One answer is that long work days have been built into America’s culture. Many Americans fail to use their vacation days and both salaried and hourly employees continue to work overtime.

A shift may be coming, however. Younger workers often eschew traditional employment in favor of jobs that allow them to have a better work-life balance.

If your business wants to take action to reduce fatigue in the workplace, OSHA recommends monitoring shift schedules to see who may be working extended hours, scheduling frequent breaks in the work day and providing educational training on the hazards of fatigue.

Recommended Reading

Fatigue costs many businesses more than they think. Here are some ways other industries have tackled the problem.

Artificial intelligence is helping the construction industry monitor spikes in overtime, which indicate the potential for an increased risk in fatigue related injuries. Overall, algorithms and AI are making the industry more efficient.

Fatigue can stay with workers even as they get in their cars and head home for the evenings and it can be especially dangerous for those in trucking and transportation industries. To help combat fatigue-related accidents, the Department of Transportation backed a requirement that would make truckers and commercial bus company drivers log their hours using an electronic log book. &

Courtney DuChene is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected].

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