The standard 40 hour workweek in the United States dates back to the Industrial Revolution. In the 1920s, Henry Ford – founder of Ford Motor Company – reduced his employees’ workweek from 48 hours to 40 hours under the belief that working too many hours in a week reduces productivity.
While Ford may not have based his beliefs on scientific research, subsequent studies have shown that he was ahead of his time. A growing number of studies conducted on the effects of working overtime have shown five negative consequences that workers and employers should be aware of.
Increased Health Problems
Studies show that workers who work excessive amounts of overtime are at greater risk of developing health problems. Among those health problems are the following:
- Back injuries
- High blood pressure
- Mental health problems
- Higher rates of on-the-job injuries
- Higher rates of alcohol consumption
- Higher suicide rates
Often, the excessive workload affects workers’ home and social life as well, which contributes to alcohol and mental health problems. A Cornell University study analyzed a group of people who worked 50 to 60 hours per week and determined that 10% of them reported having extreme work-family conflicts. For workers who work over 60 hours per week on average, that number climbs to 30%. Other studies have shown that working more than 40 hours per week is linked to higher rates of alcohol and tobacco consumption, weight gain, and depression.
Increase in Workplace Accidents
Fatigue is one of the leading causes of workplace accidents, so it should come as no surprise that excessive overtime leads to a higher number of accidents and injuries suffered at work. One study revealed that workers are three times as likely to be involved in an accident after working 16 or more consecutive hours. Another showed that workers who work over 48 hours in a week can be up to five times more likely to be involved in a car accident on their commute. Fatigued workers are less attentive and more prone to making mistakes that can lead to serious injury or fatal accidents.
Decreased productivity was the primary reason Henry Ford moved his employees to a 40 hour workweek. Any job that does not involve continuous processes can be impacted by decreased productivity. Even jobs that do involve continuous process can feel the effects of decreased productivity in the form of lower quality manufacturing and an increase in consumer complaints.
Some studies have shown that people who work over 60 hours per week experience a 25% decline in the overall productivity. On average, for every four hour increase to the standard 40 hour work week, workers show a 2.4% decline in productivity.
The decline in productivity can be attributed to many factors, including:
- Slower work rates or an increase unproductive time
- Lack of concentration and focus
Because excessive overtime leads to poor physical and mental health and fatigue, workers can “burn out” very quickly. This leads to higher rates of absenteeism. When those workers are out, replacement employees must be hired and they often begin working the same long hours as the person they replaced. In the end, it can become a self-perpetuating problem.
Higher Turnover Rates
In addition to an increase in temporary absenteeism, companies that require workers to work excessive overtime generally have a higher rate of turnover. This is most common for positions that work on salary since the workers are not receiving any additional compensation for the extra hours worked.
Solutions for Managing Overtime Rates
In order to avoid the negative consequences of excessive overtime, there are steps that companies can take to alleviate some of the problems. First, companies should make sure they are appropriately staffed so that workers are not forced to work extremely long hours just to meet goals or quotas. Companies should also focus on increasing productivity in the standard 40 hour work week and make sure that company policies and incentives don’t encourage excessive overtime. Finally, if a worker is beginning to take frequent unscheduled absences, sit down with him or her and address the root cause of the absences.