Should you be working less?

Written by Carl Davidson, Head of Insight at Research First

How many hours do you spend at work each week? One of the conclusions from the annual PRINZ Insights survey Research First conducts is that the industry tends to be a hard working one. 56% of the respondents to the last survey said they worked between 40 and 50 hours a week, with 10% saying they regularly worked more than 50 hours. Tracking the hours worked in the industry is important because it provides a comparison with other sectors. But it is also important because of what the evidence about productivity teaches us.

On the first point, according to the latest data from the OECD, the 'average' full time work week in New Zealand is 43.3 hours. At the same time, StatsNZ data show that the proportion of people working 50 hours or more a week has reduced over the last 15 years. Indeed, the data show that New Zealanders tend to be working less than they were in 2001.

Of course, what we do and how we feel about it are often very different. Social scientists have spent quite a bit of time working out why so many us feel like we are working harder when we don’t seem to be. We’ve talked about that research in an earlier version of this column, but the short version is that the number of choices we have about how we use our time influences how we feel about that time.

But here’s where tracking working hours gets interesting: the international research shows that reducing working hours will probably increase your productivity. The economies that are held up as powerhouses of productivity, such as Germany’s, demonstrably work fewer hours than their competitors. Similarly, many of history's most famously productive people did so working very few hours.

The argument for working four hours day make sense from a psychological point of view. As does one for having three day weekends. This is because you only have so much ‘cognitive bandwidth’ available to work with, and when you focus on one thing you have much less left over to focus on something else. Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan call this problem ‘tunneling’, and highlight how we tend to do more of it when we are stressed or time-poor. The irony here is that we try to work our way through periods of stress by working longer hours.

In contrast, truly working smarter seems to be both about working fewer hours (so we can spend more time recovering, and leave more space for serendipity) and to get smarter about how we structure those hours. The research here is also clear – multitasking is a myth (and one that is exploiting you), and we have found ourselves in a world where office designs are perfectly suited to enable the kind of interruptions that ravage our productivity.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.