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Are long work days feasible for coders?

By Thanh January 14, 2011 Life, Technology, Work 0 Comments

This issue is beginning to trend quite a bit. The company I last worked for tried to enforce longer work hours as well. Things became stressful, my health was affect (borderline high blood pressure) and eventually, I left after a 3 year tenure. My doctor would tell me “no job is worth putting your health in risk.” I left during an economic downturn, but I didn’t fear not being able to find work. I am highly skilled in my profession and pretty confident in my field of work.

Issue:
Economic downturn upsets shareholders therefore management enforces longer hours hoping for more productivity in hopes of making the company profitable again. In doing so, not compensating them and stressing out workers.

How developers see this:

Working longer hours is counter productive, as a coder you should focus on mental state. It’s far better to be highly productive for 3-4 hours a day than unproductive for 11 hours. Being unproductive for 11 hours just leads to working 12 hours the next day as you fix the bugs you put in yesterday. All you’re adding to the code base at that rate is bugs. Being tired and in a poor mental state will lead to having two eyes on the goal instead of two eyes on the path. Time in seat does not equal working (or profitable) code. How does working longer lead to more profit? How does working longer lead to working code? Have customers asked for those new features? Are the customers paying for the dev effort?

Well rested and happy people are far more productive than tired and unhappy people. A successful focus would be on motivation and efficiency, not on length of workday. This is certainly true if you measure productivity in value of output per unit of time worked. There is going to be a point at which that becomes counterproductive, even in the short-term, and in the long-term it probably isn’t good for morale and retention. But a boss can’t just declare motivation and efficiency, whereas a boss can just declare longer workdays. “Motivation and efficiency” require the boss to do work.

Studies have shown that the peak point for knowledge workers is something like 7.5 hours a day, 4 days a week, so going up from the standard 8 hours a day, 5 days a week (which we have Henry Ford to thank for - he carefully researched the optimum working time for assembly line workers) is already giving you diminishing returns. The ford motor company set a 48 hour, 6 day work week because, as Henry Ford said himself, for social justice reasons but it was really to reduce an extremely high turnover rate. This wasn’t the whole picture in practice though.

From a mathematical standpoint…. Lets suppose I’m a junior making 50k a year. That works out to be ~$24.65 dollars an hour, at the regular schedule of 8 hour work days 5 days a week (40 hours a week). They want to bump up the yearly hours from 2028 to 2600 or 2860? That’s 572 to 832 overtime hours in my book. Overtime usually means at least a time and a half (1.5x) but if you are feeling like this will be particularly draining… you could ask for more.  So $24.65 x 1.5 ~= $36.98 per hour coming to a total of an extra $21149.7 or $30763.2 a year. So, if I were making 50K, I’d ask for 72k to 80k a year for them to ask for an extra 2 hours of work a day. And that’s being pretty generous.

If you make more than that, and you think overtime should be 2x the pay, be prepared to step up and show them the math. At first they’ll think you are joking but when you lay it out in terms that are normally accepted by the working society, they won’t have much to argue with. If they want to fire you because you won’t work the extra hours for less, you can file for wrongful dismissal. Unless of course you signed a contract at the beginning of your job lending yourself to be run over.

In short… find a new job before your current one kills you.  I’m sure this affect more than just coders but I’m just using it since I’ve been on that boat before.

What will happen is that those who can get better jobs(the best workers) will, and the people who will be left will be the worst and least-qualified workers. There is a reason that a lot of start ups spent a lot of money on game rooms and making their employees happy and comfortable. I’d rather have 4 good hours of a programmer at his absolute best then 8 hours of mediocrity.

In the end… how am I doing now? Very well, much happier, and much healthier, thanks for reading.

A good read is…. The Laws of Productivity:
http://lunar.lostgarden.com/Rules%20of%20Productivity.pdf

Sources:
http://books.google.com/books?id=4K82efXzn10C&pg=PA126#v=onepage&q&f=false [google.com]

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