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the future of work

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from my boss at one of my first jobs. During a performance appraisal, he broke script and encouraged me to put my interests above the company's.

Last week, after reading in these pages how Kevin Sandhu, chief executive officer of the online loan startup Grouplend, gets his staff to work 80-hour weeks, I realized how lucky I am that I internalized my boss's advice early on.

Mr. Sandhu wrote passionately about how "amazed" he has been with the long nights and weekends his employees volunteer to spend away from their family and friends, presumably smiling all the while. He then suggests this sacrifice is made palatable because the company graciously includes spouses and families in company events. All along, Mr. Sandhu infers that employees and their loved ones gratefully accept this arrangement, despite earning what he deems "seemingly less-than-minimum-wage" salaries in order to be part of a greater mission.

This "greater mission" story – where employees willingly work incredibly long hours and make tremendous personal sacrifices in order to change the world – gets told again and again in the startup world. But like all fairy tales, it has little basis in reality.

Employees are useful as long as companies are profitable – but as soon as their productivity doesn't support the bottom line, they become disposable. Take Twitter: Last year, workplace ranking site Glassdoor named it one of the best places to work. Last month, the company said it was laying off 8 per cent of its work force.

Part of the problem is that we don't know how many hours we should be working to get the job done and still have a life. According to Gallup, the average non-hourly American worker spends about 47 hours a week in the office, with nearly one in five saying they work more than 60 hours. Still, books such as Timothy Ferriss's The 4-Hour Workweek spent years on The New York Times' bestseller list, promising an end to the 9-to-5 grind. More recently, a spate of stories about Swedish companies embracing a six-hour workday hit the news. The appetite for such stories demonstrate that we are hungry for an alternative to spending long hours on the job.

Sending employees home on time makes sense for companies and employees alike. John Pencavel, a professor in the department of economics at Stanford University, discovered through his research that increasing hours above a certain threshold – which he refers to as "the knot" – offers diminishing returns.

"Above the knot, successive increases in hours result in successively smaller increases in output," said Prof. Pencavel, who added that at around 65 hours a week, output fails to increase with more hours.

Not only are returns diminished with longer hours, they can be counterproductive. Prof. Pencavel studied workers who engaged in labour seven days a week, for 10 hours a day, for a total of 70 hours a week, and found their output was slightly less than the group that worked eight hours a day, six days a week for a total of 48 hours.

"The point is that it may well not be in the interest of the employer to schedule hours at which output starts to increase so little," he said. "It goes without saying that …employers don't [always] know what is in their best interest."

He said in the 19th and 20th centuries, many employers resisted calls to cut their employees' working hours. But when they were required to by law or through trade union bargaining, "they found that the sky did not fall."

Not only does productivity not increase with extended hours, but the health impact on employees cannot be overlooked. An article published last August in the Lancet medical journal found that employees who work longer hours – specifically 55 hours or more a week – are at a higher risk of stroke than those working standard hours. Poor health and diminished productivity seem like a strange price to pay for the "Red Bull and espresso-fuelled all nighters" that Mr. Sandhu so admiringly refers to.

Rather than pumping employees with highly caffeinated beverages, it's time for startups to embrace cutting-edge scheduling practices that are scientifically shown to produce results. An 80-hour work week may sound like just the ticket to improve productivity, but it will only lead to mistakes, poor health and resentful employees. Instead, find out how many hours employees truly remain productive in, and schedule and compensate them accordingly. It sounds crazy, but it may just produce the results companies are looking for.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a machine-learning, human capital search engine for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler