The Japanese government recently mandated that salaried office workers must not be required to work more that 99 hours of overtime a month, according to the Wall Street Journal. That comes out to 283 hours a month, which is 12 hours a day (working 5 days a week) or 9 hours a day (working 7 days a week.)

Apparently, the typical Japanese "salary-person" currently works much longer hours than that, a work-style that's so toxic that there's a Japanese word, "Karoshi," that means "working yourself to death." Literally, not figuratively... as in keeling over onto your keyboard.

There are three things that are ironic about this situation.

The first irony is that Japan has a low rate of unemployment. Theoretically the overworked should be able to find jobs that are less time-demanding. Such jobs, however, apparently don't exist and, even then, Japanese corporate culture discourages job-hopping.

The second irony is that, according to data  quoted by the BBC, "Japan's non-manufacturing productivity, despite the long hours worked, is the worst in the OECD countries and roughly half that of the US." (Emphasis mine.)

I emphasized "despite the long hours worked" because that assumes that working long work hours normally results in higher productivity. If the quote were to reflect the scientific consensus about overwork, it would read "because of the long hours worked."

The third irony is that apparently few if any Japanese executives have the courage it would take to break the cycle and create a healthy corporate culture that would easily beat their and overworked and burned out competition.

That's Japan. Now let's talk about the US.

While corporate culture in the US isn't as screwed up as it is in Japan, the underlying assumption--that working long hours makes you more productive--is commonplace. As a result, some of the dumb behaviors that hobble Japan's productivity crop up in the US, like everyone waiting to leave until their respective boss leaves first.

And it's not just coming from the top; US workers often brag about working long hours as if it's a measure of how important they are. To make matters worse, the US has a locust horde of  "motivational speakers" who preaching the gospel of work-till-you-drop.

What the US has that Japan lacks is a countervailing narrative of "work-life balance" that tends to ameliorate the worst excess. Even then, the issue is couched in moral terms ("workers deserve a personal life") without questioning the underlying assumption.

In fact, multiple scientific studies have repeatedly shown that regularly working more than 40 to 50 hours a week results in lower productivity because it decreases the ability to make good decisions and increases the amount of counterproductive activity.

This phenomenon is similar to the concept of "ideal staffing" in the field of computer programming:

A manager went to the Master Programmer and showed him the requirements document for a new application. The manager asked the Master: "How long will it take to design this system if I assign five programmers to it?"

"It will take one year," said the Master promptly.

"But we need this system immediately or even sooner! How long will it take if I assign ten programmers to it?"

The Master Programmer frowned. "In that case, it will take two years."

"And what if I assign a hundred programmers to it?"

The Master Programmer shrugged. "Then the design will never be completed," he said.

-- The Tao of Programming, 3.4

Just as there's an ideal number of programmers for any given task, there's an ideal number of hours that you need to produce your best work. For most people, that's about 40 to 50 hours a week. Exceed that number and you'll get less done.

Given the science, then, why don't people just stop working the long hours? Two reasons.

  1. They've drunk the Kool-Aid. Unfortunately, many entrepreneurs, executives and individual contributors truly believe that they're being more productive when they work long hours, even while they're blowing up at coworkers, making costly mistakes that require costly do-overs, or coming down with stress-related illnesses like cancer and heart disease.
  2. They know the truth but they're scared. Like the Japanese office workers, they're afraid they'll get fired or lose status if they don't put in the long hours.  And while smart people always have job opportunities lined up, nobody wants to get fired or get the stink-eye from your Kool-Aid drinking co-workers.

This is why open plan offices are such a dumb idea while working from home is such a great idea. Because there's no hiding the fact you're not at your desk, open plan offices intensify this idiotic work-until-you-drop ethos.

By contrast, working from home allows you to achieve the ideal amount of work hours that product the best results. Working from home also makes it easier for you to pretend to work insane hours so that the Kool-Aid drinkers don't flip out.

Published on: Jul 3, 2018