We’re ignoring the science of working – and it’s killing us

The more research we do, the more evident it becomes that we aren't working right. What will make us listen?

In the start-up, productivity-centric parts of the web, it’s become almost a cliché to tell us how much we should be doing in the mornings. Even the World Economic Forum has been in on the act, telling us 14 things that we should be doing if we want to be successful. In fact, people are now mocking it.

Are really we making concious choices about how we work? Sure, we have new technology that facilitates new working patterns. The liberating effect of wifi, mobiles and laptops is well-documented and well-discussed. The cyber-nomad is a real phenomenon.

But that’s all technology. And yes, tech is very exciting right now, and we should take account of it. But how about science? We know way more about humans and human productivity than we did a century or so back when the current pattern of office work was determined. Are we treating that as seriously?

No, we’re not.

In fact, we’re very, very good at ignoring research, because it would challenge many of our ingrined assumptions about the way we work.

Fact: over-work is bad for your employer

Perhaps the most widely-known – and yet routinely ignored – research, is that working long hours is bad for you and for your employer:

Considerable evidence shows that overwork is not just neutral — it hurts us and the companies we work for. Numerous studies by Marianna Virtanen of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and her colleagues (as well as other studies) have found that overwork and the resulting stress can lead to all sorts of health problems, including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease. Of course, those are bad on their own. But they’re also terrible for a company’s bottom line, showing up as absenteeism, turnover, and rising health insurance costs.

Fact: we should be starting later, not earlier

That’s one problem. Coupled with that – are our working hours completely at odds with our bodies? Dr Paul Kelley of Oxford University thinks so, with his research suggesting that people’s circadian rythems are out of sync with the standard 9 to 5 day – until we reach 55.

“This is a huge society issue. Staff should start at 10am. We’ve got a sleep-deprived society. We cannot change our 24-hour rhythms. You cannot learn to get up at a certain time. Your body will be attuned to sunlight and you’re not conscious of it because it reports to hypothalamus, not sight.”

In short, standard working patterns are making us sleep-deprived, and then we make this worse by working too long hours. And it’s killing us:

Things will only change when we stop treating passionate overwork as a marker of talent, and companies with extreme work cultures as the main suppliers of it.

Indeed, in this light, the standard startup culture can be seen as a hige gamble: your health against the small chance of becoming a unicorn, and making the serious money. A new generation of businesses have gamourised the old work ethic even further. What happened to working smarter, not harder?

Fact: Exercise makes you a better employee

Thankfully, some people are starting to make smarter choices. Here’s one entreepreneur, writing from Time, explaining why exercise takes precendence over all in their life:

If exercise stops, then my health goes downhill. With the loss of physical health my productivity at work goes down. I become depressed. I lose motivation to do the things that makes my business successful. I’ve learned firsthand that excellence in one area of my life promotes excellence in all other areas of my life. Exercise is the easiest area of my life to control. It’s easy to measure. Either I get it in, or I don’t. When I do, it lifts up all other areas of my life, including my business.

Here’s a good visual idea of why that might be the case:


Yes, exercise makes us happier – and it stimulates the brain more than just sitting at the computer. No wonder Steve Jobs was so fond of the walk-and-talk.

If we applied the same sorts of excitement to the findings of science that we do to the possibilities of technology, we might really be able to reshape how we work – for the better.