Long Hours and Other Employer Demands

By Philip Brewer on 5 July 2010 9 comments

You probably know someone who works ridiculous long hours — 60, 70, 80 hours a week. Maybe you do yourself. There are good reasons to do so, but there are also bad reasons.

Some people work long hours because they love what they do. I've known people like that, and loving what you're doing is a great reason to put in long hours. Another good reason is "to get something done." When I was first working as a software engineer it was quite ordinary to work long hours for a couple of weeks at the end of a long project to hit a deadline. (In later years those deadlines became increasingly frequent until we were trying to hit a deadline pretty much all the time.)

There are also a couple of "okay" reasons. Some people can work long hours because they're at a point in their life where it's not a hardship — they've finished school, perhaps, and haven't started a family yet. If you've got a short-term contract to work overseas (or on an oil rig, or at a remote research facility), it may make sense to just structure your life around working lots of hours on a temporary basis — you can earn a whole lot of money pretty quickly, and working so many hours means you've got no time to spend the money. It can be a great way to accumulate some capital in a hurry.

After that, though, I only find bad reasons. People work long hours because in tough times they're not sure they could find another job. People work long hours because they're hiding from their empty lives. Those are both bad.

Worst, to my mind, are the people who work long hours because they've structured their financial lives so that there's only one occupation that pays enough to cover the bills. They've put themselves into a predicament from which their only hope of escape is to cut their expenses — but since they've probably committed themselves to long-term contracts (student loans, mortgages, car loans, etc.), there's no easy way to cut. So they find themselves running as fast as they can just to stay where they are. They're terribly vulnerable, because they have to do whatever their boss demands or else see their financial lives collapse.

This is the most important, most fundamental reason that I advocate frugality: Because it gives you the freedom to walk away from abusive work situations.

It's not that hard. The key is to structure your finances so that the bills are easy to pay: Live in a small house or an apartment (or a small apartment); drive an old car that gets good mileage; hesitate before signing a service contract that adds a new monthly expense.

You don't need to deprive yourself; it's the recurring bills that have the potential to trap you in a job where you feel pressured to work long hours. Once you have your emergency fund topped off, you're free to spend as lavishly as your income allows — as long as you're not locking in future expenses.

This is actually even more important than choosing your career. There are careers where workers get more or less respect, and all other things being equal, it makes sense to choose one where workers get more respect rather than less. But that strategy has many limits. It's more important to do work that you find interesting or that you feel to be useful than it is to do work that society finds worthy of respect. In any case, what's respected changes over time — forty years ago physicians were automatically leading members of society while nowadays they might as well be working in a sweatshop.

Keep your fixed expenses modest and keep a comfortable emergency fund. Then you're in a position to push back when an employer demands something that you're not comfortable with, whether it's working long hours or doing something that violates your values.

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Guest's picture


You really hit home with this one. A year after my wife and I got marrried, my career stalled out. Luckily we had leveraged our great income (double income no kids) and were able to move to an area we love, purchase our first home (priced on the lower end of what we could afford), and I was able to open my own business. Thank you for reminding me why frugality is so important

Guest's picture

People who work long hours (excluding the ones who love what they do in their business) tend to think that the purpose in life is to attain as much success as possible. Success in the financial sense.

Success of course is not a measure of how much you bring in every month, but how you are enjoying life ( in my opinion at least). They grew up with the mentality that they must work as hard as they possibly can to attain a house, car, expensive appliances, etc.

This is sad of course because when they do achieve all those materialistic items, they tend ot not have any satisfaction because that was not what they were really looking for. They were only seeking those items because that is what society tells them to do.

Great post as it re minds people of why frugality can give you so much more in life besides saving a little money.


Guest's picture

As a RN because the staffing is so short i may have to work more than my 12 hours to finish up. not only do i need to do things for the patient but i also do not want to put my nursing license at stake. denise

Guest's picture

There is no doubt that employers often push employees to work excessive hours in addition to other ridiculous demands. But I think in the current economy many folks should be happy that they have jobs. This is more than many people can say.

Guest's picture

Back in college, one of my professors (a research scientist) told me that people who work more than 8 hrs consistently are likely inefficient. I've found that to be true. In all honesty, I think most of us (save nurses, factory workers, etc. who are required for various reasons to go-go-go) don't really even need a full 8 hrs to get our work done. If we worked more efficiently and stopped screwing around (yanno, like reading Brewster's articles on Wise Bread ;-), we could get our work done in much less than 8 hrs most days.

Also, for the salaried individual, longer hours don't neccessarily equate an increase in income, making all those long hours even more pointless.

Guest's picture

and that was Brewer's articles! Not Brewster's. I must be dreaming of brewing beer. ha!

Philip Brewer's picture

I agree, although I'm sure most bosses don't. (If you can get your work done in 6 hours, you obviously need more work.)

I find that I'm much more productive, now that I don't have a boss. But I'm only productive at doing the stuff I want to do. I'm sometimes so foolish as to put tasks that I don't really want to do on my to-do list. When I do that, it turns out I'm just as good at procrastinating as I ever was as an employee.

One key to being productive over the course of a full day is to have several different kinds of work. No one can be maximally productive at the same thing for 8 hours a day, day after day. I think that's part of the reason that nurses can be productive over the course of a very long shift—what they're actually doing is different every minute. When I was a software engineer I usually had lots of different kinds of work—writing code, writing documents, testing, fixing bugs, designing new stuff. My productive always deteriorated, though, when some one specific task became super urgent and they didn't want me "wasting my time" doing any of that other stuff. (Try and explain to a boss, though....)

Guest's picture

Actually, that's really great advice! Thank you so much. I transitioned not too long ago into a new position. I went from wearing four different hats to one and have, oddly enough, become less productive. I think I will shift around my work load to make it more interesting. Grant writing gets deeply boring after awhile. Gracias!

And let's just hope my boss doesn't hear my blabbering. :P

Guest's picture

Great post, as ever.

When I seriously began restructuring my time this year, I found that applying frugality principles to my time, the way I had been working on doing with my money, helped immensely in reducing the number of hours I worked. As an entrepreneur, I was working far too many hours in the spirit of, "The more hours I work, the more money I make." Of course, that's actually not true: more hours equated to exhaustion and poor thinking, not a better bottom line. My income actually dropped off for a while despite the extra hours.

The more frugal I became with my time, the better return I got. And the better my life became.

And time frugality started a positive feedback loop with financial frugality, which helped even more!