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
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
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.