Is our obsession with hard work hurting productivity?

In the UK, it seems that we are obsessed with hard work. The phrase “hard working families” is used in politics like a mantra to conjure up images of virtue and responsibility, while the standard business small talk question seems to be “are you busy?”. As a nation we certainly don’t work the longest hours in Europe (that honour goes to the Greeks!) but we are mid way up the pack and in some business sectors, long working weeks are the norm. Lessons from Scandinavia might suggest that our hard working ways might actually be hurting our productivity rather than boosting it.

A decade ago, Toyota’s Swedish service centre experimented with a 6-hour working day and they discovered that productivity and profitability actually went up. Since then, various organisations have been doing extensive trials of shorter working hours, with a view to making a 30-hour week the national norm. What they have discovered is that if you have clear ground rules in place about cutting out activities that are non-productive, then shorter days can be more effective as you are fresher and more focused on what you are there to do. You are working smarter – not harder.

Hard work is of course hard to measure, but one metric that is well used is simply time spent in the office. You know the idea: “Bob is a hard worker, he is here before everyone else and usually the last to leave!” The question, however, is time at work always synonymous with productive work?

Imagine for a second your working week, and try to map out all of the things that effectively waste your time. I am guessing, but they might include:

  • Reading pointless emails
  • Attending meetings that are either poorly run or irrelevant to you
  • Time on social media to relieve the tedium of the above


Imagine then that you replaced this with time at home or out of the office. Fill in the gaps for your self – you could be with your family, playing sport, walking in the woods – whatever.

The Swedish experience suggests that taking time away from work to enjoy these things will actually increase your effectiveness when you are there. If it that easy, then why aren’t we all doing it? Simple – most of us are desperate to keep up the appearance of hard work for fear of being branded as slackers.

So what is the answer? Maybe it is time to care less about what people think and care more about the quality of the work that we actually do. The Swedish research shows that by getting work life balance right you can be healthier, happier and achieve more. What’s not to like?

We work with leaders to help them focus on what is important in their roles and to form the habits that will drive success. Please get in touch if you would like to know more.

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