The 80-Hour Work Week Is a Brilliant, Terrible Lie - Pacific Standard

The 80-Hour Work Week Is a Brilliant, Terrible Lie

New research reveals how our culture of overwork breeds office dysfunction.
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(Photo: Jesus Sanz/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Jesus Sanz/Shutterstock)

“Genius,” goes the oft-quoted Thomas Edison maxim, “is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” But in some modern American workplaces, the doctrine of hard work has been supplanted by a different mantra: Fake it until you make it.

That’s the conclusion of new research published in Organization Science, which suggests that, despite the fact that we’ve enshrined workaholism as a proxy for success in American culture, many of those co-workers who pride themselves on 80-hour work weeks are probably full of it.

The research, which examined the habits of employees at a "high profile” consulting firm, found that the majority of workers were dissatisfied with the demands of high-intensity workplaces and felt constantly “overworked and underfamilied,” as lead researcher Erin Reid writes.

Americans are working harder than ever, and the distinction between “work” and leisure has been slowly and steadily obliterated by decades of progress in telecommunications.

But how each employee responded to stress shaped their future at the firm, according to Reid. Those who made “small, under-the-radar changes to their work”—faking long work hours through extensive use of email and other technology, playing the role of a workaholic while actually ditching the office in time for dinner with the family—managed to eke out future gains at the firm. Their poor schlub colleagues, meanwhile, were left to suffer.

“Other [employees] were more transparent about their difficulties, and asked the firm for help in pulling back,” Reid writes. “Their efforts resulted in harsh penalties and marginalization.”

Reid calls this behavior "passing”: Smart employees who play the part of the workaholic continued to receive performance reviews as good (or better) than their actually hard-working colleagues, despite the fact they were ditching the office earlier and finding ways to lighten their workload.

Really, the only thing separating the “passers” from their colleagues is a greater level of technological savvy. "Our e-mail program has a time client built into it. So you can actually see in your e-mail box who’s online and who's not," one subject told Reid. “Want to look like you're working? Just sign on to e-mail and walk away from the computer or take calls on your cell between runs down the ski slope.”

But while passing may seem like a brilliant strategy, it’s also a symptom of a larger problem: Americans are working harder than ever, and the distinction between “work” and leisure has been slowly and steadily obliterated by decades of progress in telecommunications. Given that so much of the American workforce has shifted toward tech-focused “knowledge” industries—health care, IT, media and technology, etc.—“time off” doesn’t mean what it used to. Thousands of professionals are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week; it’s difficult to even quantify hours worked in a given week.

Our emphasis on productivity and success has led to practices like passing that, while vaguely enticing, don’t actually provide the same rejuvenation as, say, actual uninterrupted face-to-face time with the family.

Consequently, we see even our home lives colonized by work. Leaving the office at 5:30 may seem great on paper, but that time spent answering emails while you're sitting in the living room doesn’t exactly make for a comfortable household. The multi-tasking necessary to actually “pass,” as Mother Jones co-editors Clara Jeffrey and Monika Baurlein put it, is more of a crutch than a godsend. “Minus a few freakish exceptions, most of us cannot actually multitask,” they wrote in 2011. “Try to keep up a conversation with your spouse while scanning the BlackBerry, and empirical data shows that you do both things poorly. And not only that: If you multitask constantly, your actual mental circuitry erodes, and your brain loses its ability to focus.”

All of this points to the dark side of America’s workaholic culture: Our emphasis on productivity and success has led to practices like passing that, while vaguely enticing, don’t actually provide the same rejuvenation as, say, actual uninterrupted face-to-face time with the family. And in a culture where Americans already refuse to use their paid vacation time, “passing” isn’t just a symbol of the country’s emphasis on success; it's another reminder that, sometimes, taking a vacation is actually the best way to get ahead in life.

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