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Why Busy Season Is an Exercise in Futility

A reader sent along this article on how campaign managers can easily work 60 – 80 hours during campaign season (oh the horror!) and promised we'd find an interesting bit buried in it. Sure enough, how about this?

Burnout sets in fast. For every 10 hours of weekly overtime, you’ll need an extra day off to recover. If you try to resume a 40-hour schedule without time off, your productivity will drag for weeks. Amazingly, if you try to work 80-hour weeks consecutively, by the end of week three your productivity will be so low you would have gotten just as much done working 40-hour weeks all along.

Who says the 40 hour week is the most efficient use of grunts' time besides the grunts who prefer to get a full night's sleep and maybe see their family every now and then? Well, research. That and history.

The 8 hour work day was first thought up by socialist Robert Owen. In 1817, he coined the phrase "eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest" — meaning the day was already conveniently divisable by 8, why not sort it into thirds?

The concept didn't really catch on until Henry Ford not only reduced his workers' hours to 8 a day but also paid them double in 1914. To the shock of, well, everyone, this paid off for Ford in both profit and productivity.

Here's more from the piece published in Salon from which the campaign manager article is derived:

One is that increasing a team’s hours in the office by 50 percent (from 40 to 60 hours) does not result in 50 percent more output (as Henry Ford could have told them). Most modern-day managers assume there will be a direct one-to-one correlation between extra hours and extra output, but they’re almost always wrong about this. In fact, the numbers may typically be something closer to 25-30 percent more work in 50 percent more time.

Here’s why. By the eighth hour of the day, people’s best work is usually already behind them (typically turned in between hours 2 and 6). In Hour 9, as fatigue sets in, they’re only going to deliver a fraction of their usual capacity. And with every extra hour beyond that, the workers’ productivity level continues to drop, until at around 10 or 12 hours they hit full exhaustion.

Another is that overtime is only effective over very short sprints. This is because (as Sidney Chapman showed in 1909) daily productivity starts falling off in the second week, and declines rapidly with every successive week as burnout sets in. Without adequate rest, recreation, nutrition and time off to just be, people get dull and stupid. They can’t focus. They spend more time answering e-mail and goofing off than they do working. They make mistakes that they’d never make if they were rested; and fixing those mistakes takes longer because they’re fried. Robinson writes that he’s seen overworked software teams descend into a negative-progress mode, where they are actually losing ground week over week because they’re so mentally exhausted that they’re making more errors than they can fix.

Further proof busy season is bullshit. Accounting firm leaders are supposed to be all-knowing and all-seeing business professionals, so how is it they can't figure out that working people into the ground for a few months (or worse) out of the year isn't the way to get the best work out of them?