Is The 60-Hour Work Week Still a Badge of Honor?


Some fields attract workaholics, and some fields demand them. The world of banking might be both: if you want to get ahead, you have to put in the time, whether it’s a 50-hour work week or more.

This tendency is not just a matter of productivity; it’s a matter of culture. In many fields, working long hours is a sign of dedication and ability. Only the most serious and ambitious of employees would be willing to work 60-hour weeks for the company, and so they’re the ones who are more likely to be chosen for promotion. In a company filled with ambitious employees, this attitude becomes common, and going home earlier may make you look lazy.

Yet there is evidence that long work hours offer diminishing returns. Past a certain point, your brain checks out and you run out of steam. So why stay later? It feels as though cultural pressure in the office is the main factor, with actual productivity being secondary.

Naturally, culture is an arbitrary thing to begin with; we do all sorts of illogical things in order to look good to our peers. There’s nothing new about that. What’s interesting is that this trend may be slowly trending.

Anecdotally, this writer for the Financial Review wrote that she met a senior banker at a cocktail party who was bragging to his peers about how much work he got done in as short a time as possible. He was earning social status by saying that he spent less time at work, not more—and his peers were going along with it.

You may have seen evidence of this trend in your own office; with all the articles about the dark side of startup culture and the overworking that goes with it, people these days are more inclined to talk about whether work is actually good for us. Health and balance are huge factors that employees search for when job hunting, and in pursuit of that balance, people are likely to choose productivity over working long hours just for the sake of it.

And as more talented employees choose to value productivity, it will become more of a status symbol. Perhaps it will be more common to “brag” along the lines of the aforementioned banker, implying that you’re a good employee because you can get more done in a short time.

If this is true, it could be a lifesaver for those who work late mainly due to peer pressure rather than because they’re engrossed in their activity. A cultural shift is exactly what we need to put the focus back on getting work done. Those who enjoy work may still stay late, but others will be able to leave early without stigma, and hopefully keep their motivation up. It’s detrimental to everyone if the office gets languid by 8pm; might as well only stay if you’re going to be energetic.

Like all cultural shifts, it won’t be absolute, it’s not guaranteed, and it will be slow. But at this point, it looks like it will happen.

The question is whether it will lead to more cohesion in the workplace, or whether it will create animosity. Not everyone buys into the idea that short hours increase productivity; even if productivity per hour goes up, net productivity will still probably be down if you work six hours instead of ten. Some managers may be resistant to the trend, and some employees may still look down on coworkers who leave early—and if they’re the ones who get promoted, then senior workers will still primarily be workaholics.

But let’s not jinx it yet. If managers are open to different styles of work and if productivity is emphasized above all else, then employees will be able to find their own place on the workaholic spectrum.

There’s no telling where this will lead, but less peer-based pressure and more work-based pressure should be good for both employer and employee.