130 Hours a Week? — Part 2

Part 1 of 130 Hours Per Week, raised a number of questions around what is reasonable and most effective in terms of work hours. Perhaps, we should start with what we actually know about what most people would consider to be excessive work hours (e.g., 130 hours per week).


What Does the Research on Work Hours Say?

A report by the Center for Disease Control "provides an integrative review of 52 recently published research reports that examine the associations between long working hours and illnesses, injuries, health behaviors, and performance." The report goes on to mention that "in 16 of 22 studies addressing general health effects, overtime was associated with poorer perceived general health, increased injury rates, more illnesses, or increased mortality. One meta- analysis of long work hours suggested a possible weak relationship with preterm birth. Overtime was associated with unhealthy weight gain in two studies, increased alcohol use in two of three studies, increased smoking in one of two studies, and poorer neuropsychological test performance in one study."

In a blog entry for the Washington Post, Brigid Schultz references several reputable studies as she arrives at her five reasons we shouldn't over do it on work hours:

  1. Sick. Americans spend almost twice as much on health care per person than people in other advanced nations – paying out of pocket, while other countries pool resources — and we suffer more injuries and illnesses and die younger, the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine report.
  2. Stressed. America may be the richest nation on earth, but the World Health Organization has found it is also the most anxious, with nearly one-third of all Americans likely to suffer from anxiety in their lifetime.
  3. Stupid. In a study of brains using functional MRI technology, scientists at the Yale Stress Center have found that subjects who both lived through stressful events (and who hasn’t?) and felt stressed out had smaller brain volumes than less-stressed subjects in critical areas of the prefrontal cortex that govern thinking, planning, decision making, learning and remembering.
  4. Off Balance. The United States ranks toward the bottom of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s work-life balance scale. And a growing number of Americans report feeling rushed, pressed for time, that they don’t spend enough time with their families, and at the end of the day, haven’t gotten to all the things they needed to do, much less wanted to do.
  5. Disengaged. Gallup estimates that 70 percent of all workers are disengaged from their jobs, costing between $450-$550 billion each year in productivity. And although American productivity looks mighty in international comparisons, slice that productivity by hours worked, and the United States falls several rungs – in some years even below those countries whose workers stroll home in the evening after a shorter, more intense work day, stop by a café and take the entire month of August off. Off.

But Aren't Their A Few of Us Who Feel We Must Work This Much?

When I first began work on this Post, I was struck by another spell of vertigo and forced to take the rest of the night off until I could actually sit up with out the world spinning (this really is not another reference to the Flaming Lips virtual inauguration of the GlobeBlog). This affliction is probably not related to my own long hours of work (we are still trying to pin down its cause), but it served as a reminder of the cumulative impact of long hours of work in my own life: the cycles of burnout, disaffection, and teeth grinding -- although, no significant long-term health impacts yet -- despite doing work that I genuinely love.

The challenge is, as far as I understand it, my work life seems to demand long hours.

So how do we get smarter about our work lives without attempting to hide behind empty slogans like Work / Life Balance?

Honestly, the subject of taking more breaks, and integrating them into an Uber-Busy life is new territory for me, but Courtney Seiter's Post on the Science of Breaks, makes a pretty convincing case for at least further investigating this subject. Ms. Seiter gives three simple reasons why breaks are an effective tool:

  1. Breaks keep us from getting bored (and thus, unfocused)...."
  2. Breaks help us retain information and make connections...Some studies have shown that the mind solves its stickiest problems while daydreaming—something you may have experienced while driving or taking a shower."
  3. Breaks help us reevaluate our goals...."

Ms. Seiter also gives us "Four break methods to try" and integrate breaks into our lives:

  1. Pomodoro method
    One of the most common ways to implement a schedule with breaks—especially when you’re busy—is to work in small bursts. The Pomodoro Technique is perfect for this. Just set a timer for 25 minutes, and when it goes off, take a short break for 5 minutes. Stretch your legs, grab a drink, or just sit back and relax. After you’ve done four Pomodoro sessions, take a longer break of 30 minutes or so.
  2. 90-minute work blocks
    Want more time to dig in? Working in 90-minute intervals has long been a favorite method of maximizing productivity because it works with our bodies’ natural rhythms.("When Professor K. Anders Ericsson studied elite performers like violinists, athletes, actors and chess players, he found that the best performers practiced in focused sessions of no more than 90 minutes.)
  3. The 52-17 method
    A third option: split the difference between Pomodoro and 90-minute blocks with what recent research indicates could be the most productive schedule of all.
    Using time-tracking and productivity app DeskTime, the Draugiem Group studied the habits of the most productive employees and learned that the most productive people work for 52 minutes at a time, then break for 17 minutes before getting back to it. The bottom line, they discovered, was working with purpose...
  4. Two 15-minute breaks per day
    If a time-blocked day doesn’t appeal to you or work with your job, consider a simpler but still quite effective solution: blocking out two planned, 15-minute intermissions in your day—one in the mid-morning and the other in the mid-afternoon. Around 3 p.m. is the least productive time of day, so definitely don’t skip that break!

I suppose some of this information on breaks is not really new (for example, two - 15 minute breaks is part of the accepted work scheduling practice of many employers), but after 30 years of working to excess -- often just because I thought it was the right the do -- I have begun to see the folly in the 130-hour-week mind-set.

I am quite sure that taking regular work breaks is not the Magic Bean we would like it to be, but -- for some of us -- breaks may be a first step in beginning to address our apparently unhealthy and (at times) ineffective work habits. Perhaps, the idea of integrating breaks into our work lives gives us a way to pull focus (as they say in the film industry) from the work that we are currently obsessed with and think more meaningfully about our approach, with the possibility that we may conclude: it doesn't make sense to work 14 hours today.