Work Limits May Boost Productivity

Ann All

We talk a lot about finding the right work-life balance, but hardly anyone seems to be doing it.


The recession hasn't helped, since layoffs ratchet up anxiety about keeping a job, no matter how stressful. Earlier this year, I wrote about a CareerBuilder survey that found 35 percent of people didn't plan to take a vacation this year, with 20 percent of them citing anxiety as the reason.


Maybe it's time to rethink the whole "work more to get ahead" or, in the case of the current economy "work more to stay employed" ethos. A new Harvard Business School study found that making workaholics take some time off improved their performance.


According to a Wall Street Journal article, the imposed breaks pushed the employees of Boston Consulting Group to communicate better and forge closer relationships with colleagues on project teams. It also prompted them to do a better job at planning ahead and streamlining work, which in some cases resulted in greater client satisfaction. Employee satisfaction increased, too. After five months, internal surveys showed consultants who got at least one guaranteed night off a week were more satisfied with their jobs and more likely to remain with the company.


Personal experience shows that limiting hours can create self-imposed efficiency. Because I can easily work from my home PC, I don't always push myself as hard as I could to get tasks done while at the office. On days I know I won't be able to put in any extra hours, I often find I am able to accomplish more during a given time frame. (I am most efficient when I don't come in to the office at all, but that's another story.) The president of Bobrick Washroom Equipment, a 500-employee manufacturer that expects workers to leave before dinnertime, says he thinks employees who consistently work late may have trouble delegating properly and prioritizing their work.


These kinds of realizations -- and in some cases concerns about possible litigation related to long days -- is prompting some companies to ask employees to limit their use of BlackBerries. Shaun Rein, founder and managing director of the China Market Research Group, writes in Forbes that he thinks such policies are a good idea. Echoing the results of the Harvard study, he observes:

At China Market Research Group, we have analyzed the working schedules of hundreds of executives and found that working harder and longer does not make them more productive. In fact, once a person passes a certain number of hours worked in a day, he or she actually becomes less productive. The mind dulls. The eyes gloss over. Focus strays.

Rein advises companies to "strongly recommend times for leaving work," as Bobrick Washroon Equipment does. Similar to the Boston Consulting Group teams involved in the Harvard study, he also suggests companies ask employees not to use their BlackBerries after certain hours and on weekends. The idea, he writes, is to "make your employees more efficient, not more exhausted."

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