Should We Be Working Less and Sleeping More?

Published: Feb 06, 2014

 Consulting       Salary & Benefits       Workplace Issues       
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The Congressional Budget Office predicted earlier this week that one of the side-effects of the Affordable Care Act would be to eliminate the equivalent of 2 million full-time jobs, almost entirely as a result of "a net decline in the amount of labor that workers choose to supply." 

Regardless of the politics of the issue, that concept--workers being able to choose to supply less labor--struck me as the latest example of a growing trend of employees having the opportunity to push down on the "life" end of the work-life balance. Coming on the back of years of productivity gains for employers—often achieved through existing employees working longer hours even as wage growth has stalled—it is a trend that employees would likely say is overdue, and equally likely to pick up speed as the unemployment picture continues to improve.

Overwork: A Sign of Success?

Interestingly, it's those at the top of the income scale that may have the most to gain from such a trend. In a recent piece for the New Yorker, James Surowiecki described the generational shift in working hours for those at the top and bottom of the earning scale: 

"Thirty years ago, the best-paid workers in the U.S. were much less likely to work long days than low-paid workers were. By 2006, the best paid were twice as likely to work long hours as the poorly paid, and the trend seems to be accelerating. A 2008 Harvard Business School survey of a thousand professionals found that ninety-four per cent worked fifty hours or more a week, and almost half worked in excess of sixty-five hours a week. Overwork has become a credential of prosperity." 

Whether long hours are the price of success, the reason for it, or both, few would argue that working excessive hours over sustained periods makes for happy employees—data from Vault's consulting survey, for example, shows a reverse correlation between hours worked and satistfaction with the number of hours worked, as well as a sharp drop in overall job satisfaction once the average week begins creeping over 80 hours. (FYI: those spikes at 100+ hours are the average of a very small pool of responses compared to the overall set, and are most likely a statistical quirk):


Work hours vs satisfaction


Are you getting enough sleep? 

And there may be more at stake than your satisfaction, or the increased likelihood of making a mistake due to tiredness. According to new research recently reported in the New York Times, lack of sleep—a common side-effect of long working hours—may have long-term negative effects for the health of your brain. 

According to preliminary results from research on mice, the brain is most effective at clearing out "waste" from mental activity during sleeping—while the research has yet to be replicated on humans, the study on mice found that a waking brain was only 5 percent as effective at flushing its waste as a sleeping one. 

And the cost of not flushing that waste may be more substantial than the price of an extra shot of espresso in your morning latte: according to another piece of research in the same Times article, a brain that doesn't get a thorough "cleaning" risks "degeneration of key neurons involved in alertness and proper cortical function and a buildup of proteins associated with aging and neural degeneration." Among those proteins is one—beta amyloid—that is associated with Alzheimer's disease. 

While it's important not to overstate the importance of such research at this stage—the Times article notes, for example, that the medical community hasn't yet figured out whether beta amyloid causes Alzheimer's, or whether the disease causes buildup of the protein, or both, or neither—it does offer the opportunity to consider your own habits, and to weigh the potential risks and rewards of foregoing your shuteye on a regular basis. 

While one of the researchers interviewed for the Times piece jokes about developing a pill to eliminate the need to sleep, until such a miracle arrives, the need to strike a balance between our working and non-working lives has never been clearer, and scarcely has it been so difficult. The question of whether the green shoots of change that we're seeing—including investment banks cutting back on associate hours—can take root in the coming years has the potential to make a huge difference in the lives of employees the world over. And the key to that lies in the continued profitability of businesses that successfully promote strong-work-life balance policies.


What's your take on the work-life equation? Would you welcome extra time away from work, or prefer the ability to eradicate sleep so you could cross more items off your to-do list? Let us know in the comment section below, or on Twitter or Facebook.


Read more:

The New Yorker: The Cult of Overwork

The New York Times: Goodnight. Sleep Clean.

CBO Budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 to 2024