The Economics of Crunch Mode

Crunch mode is without question damaging to the personal lives and general well-being of the workers it affects. Very few people--even managers of software companies that implement crunch time--would dispute this claim. However, many people are thoroughly convinced that crunch mode is beneficial to productivity, and that it will yield more and better company output. After all, many managers choose to employ crunch mode, and many employees view it as a necessary part of their job, even if they may dread it. We intend to show that crunch mode is not just damaging to employees personally; it is also detrimental to total productive output, and therefore company profits.

We will first review some of the research that has been performed over the past century regarding the relationship between hours worked and productivity. Although much of this research has taken place in an industrial setting, we hope to show that it can be extended to software development. We will next analyze the relationship between hours worked and productivity: specifically, how overwork affects productivity, when it does, and to what extent. Next, we will discuss the factors that lead to productivity decreases; fatigue and stress, for example, are two major contributors. Finally, we will more specifically address software development, showing that workers in this field may in fact be even more susceptible to the decreases in productivity brought on by overwork than workers in many other fields.

History

Quite a bit of research over the past century has studied the relationship between hours worked and productivity. Although to our knowledge no research has been performed relating hours worked to productivity in software development, studies in other fields have consistently arrived at two conclusions:

  1. First, as is generally considered obvious, productivity (measured as the amount of output produced per hour) generally goes down as hours worked increases. Although employees may take an hour or two at the beginning of their work day to reach maximum efficiency, after maximum efficiency is reached, a slow decline in productivity is generally seen as additional hours pass.
  2. Moreover, it has consistently been shown that when employees are made to work longer than 40 to 50 hours per week (or 8 to 10 hours per day), their total output over an extended period of time will drop below the level it had been when only 40 to 50 hour workweeks were required. In other words, in such cases, more work was actually shown to be detrimental to output.
A cartoon

A large number of studies dating back to the early 1900s support these conclusions. Over a century ago Dr. Ernst Abbe conducted experiments relating working hours to output in his Zeiss Optical Works factory in Germany. Hugo Muensterberg's seminal article "Psychology and Industrial Efficiency" (1913) states about Abbe's work:

Ernst Abbe, the head of one of the greatest German factories, wrote many years ago that the shortening from nine to eight hours, that is, a cutting-down of more than 10 per cent, did not involve a reduction of the day's product, but an increase, and that this increase did not result from any supplementary efforts by which the intensity of the work would be reinforced in an unhygienic way. This conviction of Abbe still seems to hold true after millions of experiments over the whole globe.

Abbe discovered that shortening work hours while keeping working conditions unchanged led to an increase in total output. This result has been confirmed again and again in various areas of industry. For example, through the 1920s automobile tycoon Henry Ford experimented with different work schedules for his employees. In 1926, he introduced a 5 day, 40 hour work week for 6 days pay; he had discovered that his employees actually accomplished more in 5 days than they did in 6 (reference). In 1962, the United States Chamber of Commerce published a pamphlet supporting the reduction of work hours as a means to productivity gains. In 1980, the Business Roundtable published an article entitled "Scheduled Overtime Effect on Construction Projects" stating that in cases of extended mandatory overtime (taken to be 60 or more hours per week),

...the cumulative effect of decreased productivity will cause a delay in the completion date beyond that which could have been realized with the same crew size on a 40-hour week.

We have omitted from this list countless other studies that have shown similar results across the board in a great number of fields. Furthermore, although they may exist, we have not been able to find any studies showing that extended overtime (i.e., more than 50 hours of work per week for months on end) yielded higher total output in any field.