Personal Finance

3 Reasons to Work Less Hard

A man naps with his legs up on his desk.

Americans tend to take the approach that every job demands 110% effort. That's a good philosophy at times, but in other situations it's not just unnecessary, it's bad for your overall well-being.

Of course, some people have jobs that are too easy , but most of us are in situations where the opportunities to work hard are endless. That's one way to get ahead, but it's also a recipe for burnout, and a path to making mistakes.

It's always tempting to work harder, but as the cliche goes, sometimes it's better to work smarter. Our panel of Fools each shared a reason why sometimes it's better to work less hard.

A man naps with his legs up on his desk.

There's a line between working less hard and being lazy. Image source: Getty Images.

It's bad for your health

Selena Maranjian : It can seem like you have to work as hard as you can , because it seems expected of you, or perhaps because it's more likely to lead to a promotion. But it's really not a great idea to work too hard. For one thing, it can take a toll on your health, in a variety of ways.

You may have noticed that media maven Arianna Huffington has become an advocate of sleeping and napping in recent years, but you may not have heard the origin of her new passion: She had been working so hard at one point, and not sleeping enough, that she fainted and broke her cheekbone.

One problem with working too hard is that it becomes much more challenging to have any balance between work and the rest of your life. It sets you up to spend less time with your family and friends, to have less time recharging your batteries, and to have less time even for chores such as mowing the lawn or cleaning your home. In order to spend more time on these non-work pursuits, many people get by with a lot less sleep than they should -- which can be dangerous. (Adults generally need between seven and nine hours of sleep per might, though it varies by person.)

It's not just sleep deprivation that's a problem. Overworkers also tend to neglect exercise and to eat more poorly than if they had time to prepare healthful meals. Finnish researchers have found "clear associations between being overworked and dealing with impaired sleep and depressive symptoms."

London researchers found that "those who worked more than 55 hours per week had a 13% greater risk of a heart attack, and were 33% more likely to suffer a stroke, compared with those who worked 35-40 hours per week." (Ironically, this all can lead to hard workers needing to take more sick days, hurting their productivity and not serving the company too well.) In Japan, there's even a word for death by overwork.

You might end up being more productive

Maurie Backman : Americans aren't strangers to hard work -- a good 40% put in more than 50 hours each week on the job, while 20% clock in more than 60 hours. But while working hard may be a good thing in theory, it's a practice that can end up backfiring. That's because pushing yourself past your limits can not only lead to burnout , but actually impact the quality of the work you put out.

In fact, according to a Stanford University study, employee productivity declines after 50 hours in a given week, and it virtually falls off a cliff after 55 hours. In other words, if you're like the typical worker, by putting in a 70-hour workweek, you might only accomplish as much as someone who puts in 55 hours.

It's one thing to burn the midnight oil on occasion, such as to meet specific deadlines, but if you're consistently working more than 50 hours a week, you may want to rethink that habit. You're better off limiting yourself to, say, 42 hours, during which you're engaged and at your sharpest mentally.

But don't just take my word for it: Do a little test run. Spend a couple of weeks working 50 or more hours, and then spend a couple of weeks scaling back. Once you're done, compare the difference in output. If you find that it's negligible, that's reason enough to reclaim some of those precious hours for leisure, downtime, sleep, or whatever else you might currently be lacking.

It burns you out

Daniel B. Kline : A few years ago I worked for a large technology company on a start-up project. In the early days we were short-staffed and my role was to cover weekends and early mornings during the week. As the only East Coast person on a West Coast team, I offered to work seven days a week in order to get hired.

It was supposed to be a short-term thing, but for around seven months I worked without a day off. In theory I only worked until about noon during the week, and weekends were long but supposedly pretty easy. In reality, my weekday hours often stretched into the late afternoon, along with occasional night meetings. Weekends could be easy, but they could also be intense.

It was a punishing schedule and I never got a chance to be not working. That slowly wore me down and made it hard to focus on anything other than the next day's tasks. While I was working hard at something I truly loved, the lack of a life-work balance slowly burned me out.

Once the early days of the project ended, I could have easily spoken up and switched to a more normal schedule, or at least gotten a few days off. I didn't because working hard seemed like the right thing to do, even if it shortened my own shelf life.

Had I backed off sooner, I might have been happier in that job longer, and the company might have gotten my services for a more extended period of time. Instead, I pushed too hard and eventually burned out, which helped me decide to leave, a move that might never have needed to happen.

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