A science lesson for Elon Musk: It pays to work less
As Musk and many other high-powered people have shown, the natural inclination when trying to produce more is to simply work harder, put in more hours and grind it out with sheer grit. Tesla’s TSLA, +1.48% Glassdoor site is filled with employee reviews of “long hours” and high stress.
That may work in short bursts. But in the long run, instead of working more, maybe you should work a little less.
Britain first discovered this truth in World War I.
When war broke out in 1914, Britain suspended all existing labor laws that had been put in place to protect workers. The country was at war and needed the highest level of production possible. The British formed a government commission to determine how to increase the production of weapons and munitions.
That commission’s recommendations are as shocking today as they probably were back then: It concluded that workers needed to work less, not more. When munitions workers put in more than 50 hours a week, output rose at a decreasing rate. Even more dramatic was the evidence that output was the same whether a person worked 56 hours or 70 hours.
Think about it. We are more prone to injury, mistakes, getting sick, tired and more when we are overworked. Decades of studies have corroborated this fact.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention overview of approximately 50 different studies found that extended work periods (more than 40 hours a week) decreased physical and cognitive performance. A German study reviewed 1.2 million injury reports and found that after the eighth or ninth hour of consecutive work, people had a higher risk of injury on the job.
And surprise, surprise, Tesla turns out to be one of the more dangerous places to work in the car industry. A report released in April from National Council for Occupational Safety and Health noted “that Tesla’s Fremont, Calif., plant had a rate of serious injuries that was 83% higher than the industry average in 2016.” Burning the midnight oil is not good for employee health.
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Equally important to Tesla’s troubles is that most jobs today require problem-solving and cognitive ability. Studies have clearly shown cognitive performance decreasesthe more you work past 40 hours.
As brilliant as Musk is, he should look to the example of Einstein, Michelangelo and even Steve Jobs, who all believed in taking walks, the power of reflection and taking a break from work. They realize your best ideas happen when you aren’t at work. Consider that the most creative and innovative play in decades, “Hamilton,” was conceived while Lin-Manuel Miranda was on vacation.
And why is that? It turns out that when we are daydreaming or relaxing, the brain doesn’t slow down. In fact, quite the opposite happens. Recent research tells us that downtime “replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.”
There is an area of the brain neurologists call the default mode network, which uses downtime from activity to try to make sense of what the brain has recently learned. This part of the brain considers problems, patterns, and memories—all while we think we are not doing anything.
Aaron M. Edelheit is the author of “The Hard Break: The Case for a 24/6 Lifestyle.” He is the chief strategy officer of FLO Technologies as well as founder of Mindset Capital, a private investment firm.
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