American employees are famous around the world for their long hours and short (or non-existent) vacations. Gallup reported that full-time employees in the United States actually put in an average 47 hour work week. 39% of those surveyed work 50 hours a week or more and, according to Project TimeOff,  55% of employees did not use all of their vacation time. And for what? When it comes to employee engagement and long hours, it turns out that more is less.

The BBC recently reported that “employee output declines sharply after 50 hours per week and nosedives after 56 hours to the point where someone who puts in 70 hours doesn’t produce anything more with those additional 14 hours.” What’s more, those employees burning the midnight oil actually earn fewer bonuses than those who don’t.

So, if they aren’t actually getting any more done and they’re making less money, why are so many employees staying late or answering email at midnight? Culture.

It’s easy to recognize for the obvious things. We think, “Bob in Sales was working until midnight! I know because he emailed me! Boy, Bob sure must be a great sales rep!” But in reality, the measures of success in sales are the goals achieved and the relationships built. When managers praise for the wrong things – hours at work, not productivity, for example – they are reinforcing the wrong behaviors and driving their teams to focus efforts on things that don’t drive business outcomes. Over time, that builds a culture of overworked employees competing over counterproductive measures.

According to the Harvard Business Review, “The story of overwork is literally a story of diminishing returns: keep overworking, and you’ll progressively work more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless.”  Building a community of less productive, less efficient employees just doesn’t make sense. In fact, it even reduces employee well-being and can drive up stress, absenteeism, and illness.

Employee engagement is all about connecting people to meaningful, productive work, to their benefit, as well as the benefit of the organization. And increased employee engagement correlates to greater customer satisfaction, profitability, retention, and lower absenteeism, among other business outcomes.

Here at Next Level Performance, we recognize teammates for our CARES values – Collaboration, Accountability, Respect, Ethical Behavior, and Service. Those are the ingredients needed to deliver great programs to our clients. There’s no “stayed up all night to empty the inbox” award, but there are quarterly and annual awards for service to our community or clients, and tied to our values.

To inspire great performance by employees, establish and recognize for company values that increase the chances of success, not simply make a show of long hours or paper pushing. If your recognition and engagement program is not having the desired outcomes, take the time to be sure that they actually reward the actions and behaviors that make sense for your business.

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About the author

As Sr. Director of Engagement at Next Level Performance, Susan serves on the Research Committee of the Incentive Research Foundation (IRF). Susan is a SHRM member and a member of the Incentive and Engagement Solution Providers (IESP) industry group. She has also served on the board of the Incentive Marketing Association (IMA) and is a past president of the Recognition Council, and a past member of the Performance Improvement Council. She is interested in the strategies and benefits of employee engagement, incentive, and recognition programs. An avid traveler, she is also passionate about the art and science of incentive travel. Favorite travel destinations: Costa Rica and Iceland.

Susan Adams
Sr. Director of Engagement
sadams@nxlperformance.com