Working from home has heralded longer working hours for many, but overworking can lead to health problems and loss of productivity.
In a salaried role, earnings are for the job you do within the required hours of work and not the numbers of hours you clock up. And yet the enforced working from home situation during the pandemic saw workers clocking up as much as a whole extra week of unpaid work every month. There are also workplaces where long hours are expected and treated almost like a badge of honour, but this can lead to detrimental consequences for our physical and mental health, as well as our overall levels of productivity.
But how do we figure out how many hours we should be working when we’ve become so accustomed to working to excess and still never feeling like we are on top of things?
According to Art Markman, PhD professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas, there are three red flags which suggest we are working too many hours.
1. ‘Fake work’ – doing too much
Knowledge work requires sustained concentration in order for us to be efficient at managing tasks. If a particular project requires long hours, we are able to push through in order to complete the work by digging deep into our reserves but by doing this we are typically borrowing resilience from workdays yet to come.
Such depletion of reserves can result in time then being spent engaging in what Professor Markman likes to call ‘fake work.’ Typically, this will involve sitting at our desks and doing things that look like work but aren’t work. This could be activities such as checking a few websites, shuffling papers around or scrolling through LinkedIn or Twitter, .
It’s common to engage in such activities in between tasks, but when we work too many hours, we may find that we spend an increasingly large proportion of time doing things that are not so relevant to our roles. This ‘fake work’ is a sure sign that we need to work fewer hours.
2. Lack of creativity
Problem solving skills are a requirement for most jobs, in one way or another, and this is easily accomplished when met with a challenge which has been previously overcome. Frequently however, we are faced with problems which require creative, ‘out of the box’ thinking, but when we work too many hours, we are more likely to find it difficult to come up with creative solutions.
Overwork leads to mental exhaustion to the point of being unable to hold all the elements of a problem in our minds. In this state, our thoughts are likely to skip from one thing to another and as a result, we may not be able to come up with a suitable resolution to a problem, or we will fall back on a workaround we’ve used before. Either way, according to Professor Markman, if we are finding problem solving challenging, it’s time to take a break.
3. Can you pass the reading test?
Even if you are getting a good night’s sleep every night, and realistically, how many of us are?, concentrating on anything is tiring and even desk-bound work drains us physically, as well as mentally. But, there is an easy way to assess whether or not we are in need of a break – and it takes just 10 minutes.
Professor Markman suggests finding an article or a book that details a complex concept essential for understanding your work and read for 10 minutes. If after 10 minutes you‘ve managed to stay awake and retain the information you’ve just absorbed then you are doing great. If, on the other hand, you find yourself nodding off or if your mind has wandered elsewhere within a few minutes of starting to read, then this is a sure sign that you are doing too much and you need a break. You need to cut back on the number of hours you are working to the point that you are able to pass this test the majority of times you take it.
And the upshot is?
None of these things will come as a surprise to most of us when we really think about it. How many of us are guilty of working too many hours? I know I am, and I know I wouldn’t pass the reading test if I tried it now because I struggled with exactly this issue just last week. Worryingly, I also tick the other two boxes (although scrolling through Twitter and LinkedIn is actually part of my job), but overworking is totally self-inflicted and absolutely within my power to correct. Time for a holiday I think, and luckily for me, I have five days in Barcelona scheduled in April. Please can someone pass me a Sangria?
Authored by Julie Tucker, self-confessed workaholic with an inability to say no.
Images courtesy of Canva