By Gemma Keogh-Peters

Amid the furore of France’s proposed labour reforms lays a hidden gem. Even as the El Khomri Law seeks to increase the 35-hour workweek in France to 40, or even 60 hours a week, Article 25 provides for another workplace necessity – the right to Digitally Disconnect.

The proposed law states that “The development of information and communication technologies, if badly managed or regulated, can have an impact on the health of workers,” and goes further to suggest that companies create formal policies to limit workplace encroachment into workers’ personal lives; most notably, banning workplace emails from being sent over the weekends.

While on the one hand it pushes for weekends to be treated as a ‘sacred ground’ to one’s personal life, on the other it pushes for longer working hours. In this regard, the law seems to be at cross-purposes. By its own contradictions, the El Khomri Law forms an interesting debate over the needs of businesses to grow and the needs of workers to be treated as more than just the fertiliser used to fuel that growth, not just in France, but all over the world.

A little hard work never hurt anyone

Within staunchly entrepreneurial cultures like the United States, much is made of ‘hard’ work. By and large, working hard is correlated with working long hours—with sleep coming only as an afterthought. Forget about weekends or even the thought of having a personal life.

But is ‘hard’ work effective work, and while a little hard work doesn’t hurt, what about too much hard work?

‘Karoshi’ is the Japanese term for ‘death by overwork’ and like ‘defenestration’ one must wonder at how often something must happen until it’s decided that a whole new word is needed to describe it. Either it happens all too often, or lexicographers have a predilection for the macabre.

Karoshi, unfortunately, is on the rise in Japan. 2015 saw the rise of compensation claims for karoshi hit the record of 1,456 cases. A case is considered karoshi if an employee’s death followed working 100 hours of overtime in the prior month, or 80 hours of overtime for two or more consecutive months.

As it turns out, too much hard work can kill you.

Aside from a curiosity on what Japanese companies’ insurance premiums must be like, this begs the question: are we working more than we should?

The point of diminishing returns

There has been an experiment in Sweden that is addressing that very question. Recently the Svartedalens nursing home mandated a 30-hour work week as part of the experiment to see what effect shorter work hours had on employee productivity as well as their health.

While there are detractors to the experiment, who claim that moving from 8-hour workdays to 6-hours would strain finances and reduce competitiveness, the results begged to differ. Managers found that under the 6-hour system workers not only equaled the results of their typical 8-hour day, at times they even exceeded it.

This is not a new finding. It merely replicates the results from a similar experiment – conducted in the 1930’s. W.K. Kellogg, the breakfast cereal magnate, replaced the company’s three 8-hour shifts with four 6-hour shifts, and the results were astounding. Production costs went down, employment went up and so did productivity.

Knowledge-based industries seem to be reaping similar benefits, judging from one experiment conducted by a UK-based advertising agency.

‘Work expands to fill the time available.’

The ability to replicate the results of a study are a much sought after proof within the scientific community. And true to form businesses are not leaping on-board to take advantage of the findings. But perhaps businesses know something the science doesn’t. So let’s test the premise: if the same could be accomplished on a 6-hour workday, how much more work is accomplished on a 16-hour workday?

The answer, according to this Harvard Business Review article is, not very much. Managers could not see the difference in output from workers who actually did put in 16-hours of work and those workers that spent quite a lot of their time—as an acquaintance of mine so eloquently put it—just “faffing about”.

As work days become longer workers either burnout quickly or find ways to mitigate the stress of long work days by working less. Proponents of 16-hour workdays would do well to remember Parkinson’s Law, wherein “work expands to fill the time available.”

Sleep is for the weak

The additional problem of long working hours is the knock on effect it has on a worker’s personal life, and health.

16-hour workdays leave little time for sleep, and while ‘hard-working’ CEOs and civil servants are quick to boast about how few hours of sleep they have each night (some as little as 4 hours), recent studies into the effects of sleep deprivation have turned up some alarming results.

Sleep studies conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, have revealed the effects lack of sleep has on our brains and how we think. In the words of David Dinges, who conducted the study:

Attention becomes unstable; we have trouble thinking fast; cognitive processing speed is markedly reduced; short-term memory begins to fail. We can’t hold things in our memory as well as when we’re full alert.

Furthermore, the lack of sleep has cumulative effects. 5-6 hours of sleep a night, every night, and the effects stack day-by-day. And these effects worsened the fewer hours of sleep one got. Subjects that slept just 3-4 hours a night deteriorated very rapidly.

The less sleep you got chronically, the more rapidly you deteriorated. So the two things you see first are you cannot sustain attention for very long. You try to compensate by then becoming impulsive. So what happens, paradoxically with chronic sleep restriction is people will be slow to respond, or lapse. And then they’ll be overly impulsive and maybe talk or interact a lot, and then suddenly be out of it again.

Just like sleep debt, long working hours create a constantly deteriorating situation. 16-hour workdays reduce productivity, with the knock-on effect of reducing available sleep hours, which reduces sleep, which impairs cognitive ability, which in turn lowers productivity and so on.

Is it any wonder then that in a country like Singapore, where long working hours are the norm, workers are seen as “disengaged and unproductive” and productivity has ground to a standstill. Not only does this lack of productivity cost the Singapore economy as much as $6 billion per year, but the health effects on workers could cost insurance premiums to rise as well.

In the United States, where obesity is near epidemic proportions, the health cost directly attributed to obesity is in the tune of $152 billion with obesity related absenteeism costing businesses as much as $6.4 billion each year.

Two key contributors to obesity? Long working hours and a lack of sleep.

But look hard enough and you will find many people who can sleep four hours a night and wake up in the morning raring to go. 1-3% of the population are natural “short sleepers” and for those blessed with this attribute sleep deprivation and its attendant effects are not an issue.

“Short sleepers” also tend to be energetic, outgoing, optimistic and ambitious, so it would be of little surprise to find many of them as leaders in business and bureaucracy, with the notion of sleep being for the weak coming from the top down.

As the Athenian historian and general, Thucydides once stated:

‘It is frequently a misfortune to have brilliant men in charge of affairs. They expect too much of ordinary men.’

If such were the case: that the ordinary worker has his or her lot decided by leaders who are either blessed with the benefits of being a “short sleeper”, or by those cursed to only believe they are “short sleepers” when they are in fact cognitively-impaired and impulsive in their decision-making, then where can workers turn to to have sense prevail?

Can the law really step in to solve this growing problem of chronic overwork?

Laws and the paper they’re printed on…

You would think that with chronic overwork killing workers in Japan that there would be a law preventing overly long work hours. Yet, Japan has no such law. However, the problem with a law is not just in the law itself, but with the enforcement of that law.

Take Singapore for example.

Singapore is a nation that is endlessly renewing itself. You can hardly turn a corner without seeing some sort of construction, roadworks, or utilities upgrading going on. The majority of this labour comes from foreign workers—from Bangladesh, Thailand, Myanmar and the like.

Singapore has very stringent laws and regulations regarding the employment, housing, and care of foreign labour. There are minimum salary requirements, working hour restrictions, mandatory insurance coverage, and regulations regarding the discharge of such workers. Yet, despite all the regulations, volunteer organisations such as Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) report on violations of those regulations fairly regularly.

Many of these violations go unreported due to the workers’ ignorance of the law or their rights. And for those that do find out, undergoing the legal process to see remedies can be a time-consuming process that they can ill afford. In many countries Employment law constitutes a civil case, rather than a criminal one. Those aggrieved will have to turn to their own lawyers and some deep pockets in order to see a case through.

Even when workers win a case the remedy may not come when the offending company simply refuses to pay. The fact is that laws without the will or ability to enforce them are functionally toothless.

Lack of enforcement of labour laws is not merely limited to Asia. According to a Centre for Economic Policy Research paper, the enforcement of labour laws is something many nations struggle with. The cost of enforcement can simply outweigh the benefits. According to the study, the more stringent the regulations, the less enforcement there is. So is more enforcement needed?

The question of enforcement is a tricky one. Too little and the law is ineffectual, too much and the law could stand in the way of business operations. Imagine if overzealous enforcement of regulations on working hours stood in the way of a CEO or entrepreneur giving his all for his or her business? Or what if it prevents a worker from taking some extra overtime to see his or her family through a financially difficult period? Sure, it sounds ridiculous, but equally, if not more ridiculous things have happened, when it comes to enforcement of the law. Business needs can be unpredictable and at times exceptions to the norm may be required. One does not want enforcement of the law to be so harsh as to violate a person’s basic human right—the right to earn a living.

Moreover legal approaches may face a larger battle than with the difficulties of enforcement. That is with human nature and cultural norms. What happens when the corporate cultural norm is the 16-hour workday that many labour laws seek to prevent?

Fatigued Man

A culture of overwork

If you’ve ever endured the withering gazes of your colleagues while you punched out of the office promptly at 5 while the rest of them had to stay on to work late, then you know how much pressure a workplace culture can have on an individual.

In a culture where hard work is prized as a virtue this pressure can force workers to stay in the office much longer than they would like to, or need to despite their legal rights to do so. But there is more to this than simple social niceties. Failure to work equally long hours can be assessed as a mark of un-productivity despite actual results stating otherwise. It’s simply human nature. If an employee is not present at their desk, then it’s hard to think that they’re working.

In the earlier linked HBR article consider the story of Michael. He faced a poor performance review and was denied a promotion after he returned from a 6-week leave to spend with his children. Despite the fact that he was entitled to 3 months of leave and that he only took half of that. Simply not being in the office cost him his promotion because of the perception it created, not the result. It would seem that having a work-life balance could cost you your job.

What then can an employee reasonably expect to do when faced with the ire of their colleagues or poor evaluations from their managers for not putting in the extra hours that are expected of them, the law be damned?

Change starts from within

Aetna is a health insurance company in the United States, and as of April this year its CEO, Mark Bertolini offered to give employees a $300 bonus for sleeping at least seven hours a night every night.

This move spawned mixed reactions, positive ones championing the work-life balance, and privacy issues with the idea of business meddling with the personal lives of their employees. While having your sleep tracked by a fitbit might encroach a little on one’s personal life, at least the employees at Aetna are getting a shot at having a personal life.

Between government regulation and workplace culture the best chance for change happening comes at the company level itself. And like all change within a company it should come from the top-down if it stands a chance of becoming a reality.

Laws can serve as a reflection of the moral values of a society, and the passing of laws that favour reasonable working hours shows that governments are not ignorant of workers’ needs. Yet the law cannot account for “peer pressure” or having to burn the midnight oil to rush a project out on time.

Yet if real change on how we work and how long we work is to come it would best come from business leaders themselves. It is easy to keep on going the way we always have been. It is hard to make change, even if that change is for the better. The choice, however, is ours. Do we keep going the way we always have and work against ourselves, or do we listen to the science and the advice that is neigh on 100 years old: that all work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy.