Whitespace E: The Economics of Time
Shady hillside in Spokane County, WA

Skreyola's White Pages

- Whitespace E -

Glasses resting on an open book

- The Economics of Time -

by Lincoln Sayger

1579 wds.
First published on 03/5/01

It has been repeatedly said that "Time is money." Many managers apparently feel that this means the longer you work your employees, the more money you will make, because your company will be more productive. But is that really true? Does working longer hours make people more productive?

Unfortunately for the millions of businesses whose policies assume that the answer is yes, it is no. Productivity has its limits, and while we have gained the knowledge to make ourselves more productive without losses in quality of life, we're actually trading our well-being for productivity, a trade we don't need to make. Why do we do it?

To answer that question, let us consider first the way things used to be. Time was when men worked for their living at home, ate lunch with their families, and in most cases rested on the weekends. If a man took two hours to make a chair, he could probably make four or five chairs in a day, two in the morning and two or three after lunch, depending on how late he decided to work. His productivity, considering the technology he used, was very good.

Contrast that with a worker today. A worker might work eight or nine hours, grab a bite somewhere in the middle of the day or skip lunch and drink coffee or soda to stave off feelings of hunger, and yet this worker's boss will not be happy with the productivity. The worker of yesteryear was proportionally more productive than the worker of today. With all the increases in technology, how can this be so?

The answer lies beneath the surface. The worker of yesteryear was more productive because the worker of yesteryear was more relaxed and more alert. Remember the lunch in the middle of the day?

Yesteryear's worker, we'll call him Matt, ate lunch at home with his family, and he took at least an hour off for lunch. He might rest from work for as many as three hours, eating, spending time with his children, and perhaps taking a nap or doing something he enjoyed.

Today's worker, we'll call her Donna, eats, if at all, on the run or at her desk. If she decides to forego lunch, as many workers do, she will fight off hunger and lethargy with coffee or a soda. The caffiene makes her feel more alert, but she is still unproductive.

Without the rest and fuel lunch provides, she spends more than half of the afternoon unable to concentrate, which leads to mistakes and makes it necessary for her to read information more than once in order to process it. The result is that more than one third of her day she is working against herself. The stress that has been building all day has had no opportunity to be relieved, and she goes home from work tired, tense, and quite probably confused.

Workers in America used to take an hour off of work to eat lunch. Not so today. The lunch break has been reduced to about half that time, and many employees are encouraged to eat within a quarter hour. Some employees, in an attempt to get ahead, skip lunch altogether or eat while they work. What they don't realize is that they are hurting their efficiency rather than boosting it.

"For some reason we feel as if taking a break for lunch is a [bad thing]," says business consultant Simon Marks. "In fact it's essential - both for health and work reasons. Most of us are tied to computer screens all day and it is imperative to give your eyes a break and to take your mind off work, even if it's only for 20 minutes or so. Otherwise you'll get to four in the afternoon and not be able to concentrate, which is totally counterproductive."

Employees work faster and make fewer mistakes when they are relaxed and alert. So why do most businesses put such a premium on time, even though working their employees without adequate rest is counterproductive? The trend is probably a hold-over from the days when a receeding economy made it temporarily feasible for employers to try to squeeze every last bit of work out of their existing workers in order to avoid paying extra benefits for extra workers.

This strategy may have worked in those tight times, but America has had a growing economy for years now, and disorders related to stress and fatigue, such as road rage and workplace violence, are on the rise. Employees simply aren't getting enough rest, and the expense of overworked workers is beginning to show. Farmers used to leave a field fallow every four years because they were able to grow better crops, and workers used to get rest in the middle of the day, which led to better productivity. Employers need to wake up and see that the days of working employees until they can barely stay awake to drive home are outdated.

Some less-developed countries know the secret that escapes America. In many Latin American countries, farmers stop working during the hottest part of the day and take a nap. The siesta is a long established tradition, and farmers keep taking it because it is a good idea. A farmer who works through midday will not be as productive as a farmer who takes a siesta.

Businesses in America could reap similar benefits by closing for one or two hours every workday to give their workers time to relax, to socialize, and most importantly, to eat. If they adopted this policy, they would find productivity increased more than enough to cover the idle hour or two.

These businesses would not have to take their idle hour at noon necessarily. Private offices could take lunch at noon, public offices could take lunch at one, and restaurants could take lunch at two or three. Public service workers could take lunch in shifts but be given at least a full hour break.

Lunch is not the only time that can be given back to the workers in order to increase productivity. The worker of yesteryear started work when he wanted and finished the day when he chose. This could also benefit today's marketplace as well.

Some workers work more productively early in the morning, while others work better after the day has progressed to some degree. If companies can accomodate the different segments of the work force by allowing the larks, or people who are cheerful and efficient when the sun is peeking over the hills, and the owls, or people who have a hard time getting out of bed before ten a.m., to work when they are most productive, work efficiency could be increased drastically, perhaps even doubling. Not all businesses are structured in a way that can accomodate this strategy, known as 'flex-time,' but many of the ones that are could be restructured to allow the strategy to work.

Another facet of yesteryear's workplace that could help today's is location. Work used to be at or near the home. Now, however, workers have to commute twenty, thirty, sixty, or even one hundred minutes or more just to get to work, with the same trip waiting for them at the end of the day. This situation is dangerous, and some workers even fall asleep during their commute. The fortunate ones ride public transit to work and have the luxury of catching a nap, but most workers, especially in America, drive their own cars, and the possibility of losing consciousness is a deadly reality.

How can businesses improve this situation? Quite simply, they will have to move their firms. While some businesses, such as retail stores, do not have the ability to choose their locations, many offices do. With the level of technology we enjoy today, information can frequently be shipped to rural locations as easily and as quickly as to urban ones. If firms dealing with information make this move today, the shipping industries on which they rely for physical transfers will follow tomorrow.

By moving work closer to where people live, businesses can realize greater efficiency because workers will be fresher when they arrive at the office, and workers can realize intangible benefits such as reduced stress during commutes and increased time with family, which will increase their productivity, which will benefit businesses, which will benefit workers by making higher wages affordable to their employers. This is the attractive lure of telecommuting, and by moving the firm instead of the worker, the benefits can be grasped more fully than by telecommute because colleagues will be better able to interact.

By integrating the principles that allowed yesteryear's worker to labor at peak efficiency, we can put today's workers where they belong, at double, triple, and quadruple the efficiency compared to workers of the past. Our employees would be happier, healthier, and more productive; our businesses would be faster, safer, and more profitable; and our communities would be more lively, more pleasant, and more family-oriented. Our citizens would not only be more wealthy, they would enjoy the rich treasures that only time away from work can offer.

Businesses in America, and everywhere else where the 'rat race' syndrome is suffered, could learn a lot from the past and the countries that still live as they did in the past. Only by studying the past can we hope to learn its lessons. Only by learning those lessons can we hope to truly benefit from the economics of time.

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