The bad reasons you’re forced to work long hours

Working long hours is unproductive, unhealthy, and unfortunately common. I strongly believe that working less hours is good for you and your employer, yet many companies and managers force you to work long hours, even as it decreases worker productivity.

So why do they do it? Let’s go over some of the reasons.

Leading by example

Some managers simply don’t understand that working long hours is counter-productive. Consider the founders of a startup. They love their job: the startup is their baby, and they are happy to works long hour to ensure it succeeds. That may well be inefficient and counter-productive, but they won’t necessarily realize this.

The employees that join afterwards take their cue from the founders: if the boss is working long hours, it’s hard not to do so yourself. And since the founders love what they’re building it never occurs to them that long hours might not be for everyone, or even might be an outright negative for the company. Similar situations can also happen in larger organizations, when a team lead or manager put in long hours out of a sense of dedication.

A sense of entitlement

A less tractable problem is a manager who thinks they own your life. Jason Fried describes this as a Managerial Entitlement Complex: the idea that if someone is paying you a salary they are entitled to every minute of your time.

In this situation the problem isn’t ignorance on the part of your manager. The problem is that your manager doesn’t care about you as a human being or even as an employee. You’re a resource provided by the human resources department, just like the office printer is provided by the IT department.

Control beats profits

Another problem is the fact that working hours are easy to measure, and therefore easy to control. When managers or companies see their employees as a cost center (and at least in the US the corporate culture is heavily biased against labor costs) the temptation to “control costs” by measuring and maximizing hours can be hard to resist.

Of course, this results in less output and so it is not rational behavior if the goal is to maximize profits. Would companies would actually choose labor control over productivity? Evidence from other industries suggests they would.

Up until the 1970s many farms in California forced their workers to use a short hoe, which involved bending over continuously. The result was a high rate of worker injuries. Employers liked the short hoe because they could easily control farm workers’ labor: because of the way the workers bent over when using the short hoe it was easy to see whether or not they were working.

After a series of strikes and lawsuits by the United Farm Workers the short hoe was banned. The result? According to the CEO of a large lettuce grower, productivity actually went up.

(I learned this story from the book Solving the Climate Crisis through Social Change, by Gar W. Lipow. The book includes a number of other examples and further references.)

Bad incentives, or Cover Your Ass

Bad incentives in one part of the company can result in long hours in another. Consider this scenario: the sales team, which is paid on commission, has promised a customer to deliver a series of features in a month. Unfortunately implementing those features will take 6 months. The sales team doesn’t care: they’re only paid for sales, and delivering the product isn’t their problem.

Now put yourself in the place of the tech lead or manager whose team has to implement those features. You can try to push back against the sales team’s promises, but in many companies that will result in being seen as “not a team player.” And when the project fails you and your team will be blamed by sales for not delivering on the company’s promises.

When you’ve been set up to fail, your primary goal is to demonstrate that the inevitable failure was not your fault. The obvious and perhaps only way for you to do this is to have your team work long hours, a visible demonstration of commitment and effort. “We did everything we could! We worked 12 hour days, 6 days a week but we just couldn’t do it.”

Notice that in this scenario the manager may be good at their job; the issue is the organization as a whole.

Hero syndrome

Hero syndrome is another organizational failure that can cause long working hours. Imagine you’re an engineer working for a startup that’s going through a growth spurt. Servers keep going down under load, the architecture isn’t keeping up, and there are lots of other growing pains. One evening the whole system goes down, and you stay up until 4AM bringing it back up. At the next company event you are lauded as a hero for saving the day… but no one devotes any resources to fixing the underlying problems.

The result is hero syndrome: the organization rewards those who save the day at the last minute, rather than work that prevents problems in the first place. And so they end up with a cycle of failure. Tired engineers making mistakes, lack of resources to build good infrastructure, and rewards for engineers who work long hours to try to duct tape a structure that is falling apart.

Avoiding bad companies

Working long hours is not productive. But since many companies don’t understand this, when you’re looking for a new job be on the lookout for the problems I described above. And if you’d like more tips to help you work a sane, productive workweek, check out my email course, the Programmer’s Guide to a Sane Workweek.

You shouldn't have to work evenings or weekends to succeed as a software engineer. Get to a better place with the Programmer's Guide to a Sane Workweek.