Working long hours without sufficient rest could limit worker productivity

Research suggests increasing work load can stimulate a person to be more decisive, creative and effective up to a certain point; if the work load increases further, however, the person’s efficiency at work begins declining and the person feels overburdened and eventually burns out

November 03, 2023 08:00 am | Updated 11:46 am IST

File picture of Infosys founder Narayana Murthy (centre) with cofounders S. Gopalakrishnan and Nandan Nilekani

File picture of Infosys founder Narayana Murthy (centre) with cofounders S. Gopalakrishnan and Nandan Nilekani | Photo Credit: Bhagya Prakash K.

Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy, in a recent podcast hosted by Mohandas Pai, said that India’s productivity is one of the lowest in the world. He said, “Therefore, my request is that our youngsters must say, ‘this is my country; I’d like to work 70 hours a week’”. He cited Japan and Germany as two countries that improved their productivity post Second World War, due to such long working hours.

To be fair to Mr. Murthy, he also mentioned about “corruption in the government” and the “delays in our bureaucracy” as other reasons for reduced productivity. But, the only talking point has been the 70-hour work week.

Does increased working hours help in productivity?

In the manufacturing sector, increased working hours leads to increased productivity. Manufacturing firms operate 24- hours a day by using the shift system, with 3 shifts of 8 hours each.

The same applies to many other businesses which employ different staff for different shifts.

Business Matters | Is Narayana Murthy right in asking youngsters to work 70 hours a week?

In the information technology (IT) sector, input by the individual and the team is more important than in many other sectors. Shift work is not applicable except in areas like maintenance and customer support.

In the development of a software product, the same team is expected to work from the beginning to completion of the project to ensure continuity.

Hence, to increase the productivity of an IT company, the promoters might think that increasing working hours is the only way. But does increased the working hours of a person or team lead to better performance and productivity?

Stress and performance

The Yerkes and Dodson curve, popularly known as the Stress curve, is a bell-shaped curve. What the curve demonstrates is that when there is no pressure or no stress, a person tends to get frustrated, bored and has less motivation to do any work. The person’s performance will be poor and productivity will be low.

But as the pressure, work load or the demand on the person increases, the person becomes stimulated, alert and as the demand increases further, the person becomes decisive, creative and effective.

If the demand increases further, however, the person’s efficiency at work starts declining and the person feels overburdened. The person would then have difficulty concentrating, become indecisive, irritable, anxious and fatigued.

If the demand remains high for many days, the person becomes exhausted and gets burned out.

Zone of optimal stress

The zone where the person is creative and effective is called the zone of optimal stress. Beyond the zone of optimal stress, increasing the work load leads to a negative outcome. This bell-shaped relationship between stress and performance is known as the Yerkes and Dodson law.

This curve was first proposed in 1908 by Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson, two psychologists, based on their studies using rats. Later, this law was found to be true for humans as well.

Stress among doctors and pilots

Prolonged working hours during training period is the hallmark of postgraduate medical education. 18-, 24- or even 36-hour shifts are a norm for resident doctors in many teaching hospitals.

The prolonged working hours lead to sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is known to impair our cognitive function and decision-making ability, apart from many other effects. Many serious medical errors are committed by doctors due to the fatigue of working on long shifts.

In the aviation industry, things look different. Sleep time and rest time are legally mandated. A pilot should compulsorily have a minimum of 10 hours rest before a flight, of which he or she should have slept for 8 hours. There is also a mandated post-flight resting period. In addition, pilots must also have 30 consecutive hours of rest each week.

The reason cited for this is that the pilot is responsible for the lives of passengers. Isn’t the trainee doctor responsible for the lives of the patients under his/her care?

Rest and sleep ensure that the person functions effectively at work. The same holds good for a software professional who would write the code for much of the software we use. Some of these codes might be used in life-saving equipment.

The ‘flow state’

There is one exception to the Yerkes and Dodson curve. That is the concept of ‘flow’ proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychologist.

A flow state occurs when a person is involved passionately in a creative or innovative work. The person loses the sense of time and would work for prolonged hours without realising the passage of time.

There is great clarity about what needs to be done and how well they are doing. Their concentration on the task will be immense and there is merging of action and awareness. The skill level and the challenge are in balance. They have a sense of control over what they are doing.

There is intrinsic reward in the flow state. That is, the person continues to work as he or she likes the experience of working, rather than for a secondary reward like appreciation from the boss or a tertiary reward in the form of monetary rewards.

All of us experience flow states from time to time. It happens when the work is challenging, creative or unique.

Flow experience does not happen every day when we do routine, monotonous work which does not challenge our creativity And flow experience definitely does not last for 70 hours a week!

(Dr. Mohan Raj is a consultant psychiatrist practising in Chennai. Views are personal)

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