Illustration by Jan Buchczik
I’m toiling away on my laptop, getting lots of work done. Notes are being reviewed, interviews are being prepared, and I’m exchanging instant messages with two colleagues. This productivity is great! But I feel so, so tired. Like I should be under the covers instead of checking off my endless to-do list. That’s because it’s bedtime, 11 p.m., and I’m home in my striped pajamas. This isn’t an anomaly or the result of a new deadline or an unusually busy week. It’s my normal nighttime routine—and probably yours, too.
Work has been leeching onto people’s off-duty time for years. E-mail makes it easier to communicate and more likely that annoyingly ambitious colleagues will respond to every message, at length and in real time. (In-box volumes are increasing by about 15 percent a year, according to global data group Experian (EXPN).) With the growing irresistibility of the smartphone and the ubiquity of cloud collaboration, evening work for many professionals has become standard. We come home from the office, change into more comfortable clothes, put the kids to bed, and maybe open a bottle of wine. And then we grab our laptops and log back in.
“This is now a common thing,” says Beth Livingston, an assistant professor of human resource studies at Cornell University, who cites the growth of salaried jobs and types of work that can be accomplished outside the office as factors behind the new night shift. “We don’t produce anything that is easy to see, so the only way to measure our output is by working hard.”
It’s ridiculously easy to find fellow adherents of this regimen, mostly because they all obsessively answer their e-mail within five minutes. Jilliene Helman, 27, practically jumps in recognition when I mention it. She’s the co-founder and chief executive officer of a startup in Los Angeles called Realty Mogul, which lets people pool their money in real estate investments. Helman, who doesn’t have children, typically ends her day with a business dinner or some other work-related event at 10 p.m. Then she jumps on her computer, finally getting to bed at 2 a.m. Sixty percent of her work e-mails are sent during those late hours.
When the boss is a workaholic, that timetable inevitably gets passed on, viruslike, to subordinates. “We set expectations with employees up front,” Helman says. “This isn’t an environment where people only work 9 to 5.”
Part of the problem is that modern workplaces make it so difficult to do any actual work. Employees spend an average of four hours per week in meetings, according to the Centre for Economics and Business Research. E-mail provides a constant distraction: The average worker spends 28 percent of her time managing her in-box, according to a 2012 McKinsey Global Institute survey. And the incessant buzz from the guy in the next cubicle—about 70 percent of offices now have open floor plans—makes deep thinking impossible. “I try to block out sections of the day when there are no calls or meetings. Otherwise there are just too many distractions,” says Jaclyn Baumgarten, 36, CEO of Cruzin, an online boat rental startup. Baumgarten says she has to work each night until her “head hits the pillow.”
Forget about trying to take some time off from the grind. “I took three weeks off for my honeymoon and have literally worked every single night since,” says David Mars, 38, a partner at New York-based venture capital firm White Owl Capital Partners, in a conversation that happens late on a Monday when, naturally, we’re both still working. Mars’s bête noire is e-mail, which flows in at all hours from his portfolio companies in China, Europe, and North America. “It’s a nonstop merry-go-round,” he says. “It really is a global economy. And the global economy is destroying all our personal lives.”
Arlie Hochschild, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley and author of The Second Shift: Working Families and the Revolution at Home, blames the 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift on the rise of international competition and the loss of job security. “People are a little more anxious to be the visible hard worker, the one that stands out,” she says. “It leads to a kind of low-grade anxiety, which has animated the drive for longer hours.”
This affliction is predominantly American. Workers in the U.S. now log 1,788 hours of work per year, besting the Germans (1,388), the French (1,489 hours), and even the Japanese (1,735), according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The highest earners in the U.S. regularly brag about putting in 60 to 80 hours a week, well above the national average of 33 hours recorded by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Jeremy Schulz, a visiting scholar at the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues at Berkeley, interviewed 50 professionals each from France, Norway, and the U.S. from 2003 to 2007. The Norwegians, Schulz found, leave work punctually by 6 p.m.—it’s taboo to stay longer—but spend the most hours teleworking. The French stay at the office longer, using the early evening hours to hobnob and conduct high-level meetings. But they also take longer lunches, and there’s fierce cultural resistance to letting work take over leisure time. A recent labor agreement in the high-tech and consulting fields included an “obligation to disconnect communication tools” after workers had logged a certain number of hours each week. In other words: Non, French employees will not be answering their boss’s midnight e-mail.
Responses from Americans in Schulz’s study depended largely on where they worked. He concludes that it’s up to job hunters to ask prospective employers about the likelihood of nighttime work, then decide whether it accommodates their lifestyle. “Bargaining is a pervasive feature of the American workplace,” he says. “I’ve heard a lot of success stories from people who do manage to leave early and disconnect, because they struck a deal with their boss.”
The irony of the new night shift is that white-collar professionals have never had more flexibility and autonomy. Companies regularly bend over backward to appear family-friendly and allow working moms and dads to leave the office early to get the kids. The young and childless, meanwhile, continue working, creating a guilt that forces parents to log back on after dinner. Anne Sophie Hurst, an account manager for Fluid, a digital advisory firm in San Francisco, often knocks off work at the totally not-outrageous hour of 4:30 p.m. to get her son at preschool. “There’s the feeling that I’m letting my teams down by not being there as much as I should be,” she says.
Yet cracking open the computer at 9 p.m. generates its own share of remorse. It means you’re not doing other stuff—say, having a meaningful conversation with that slightly familiar person who shares your home and probably also happens to be staring at a laptop. And there can be health consequences. Researchers frequently try to plumb the connection between work and well-being. Last year a study by doctoral students at Kansas State University, published in the Journal of Financial Planning, showed that people working more than 50 hours a week are more likely to skip meals and report higher overall levels of depression.
“There’s a lot of value and importance in turning off technology and disengaging from work,” says Wendy Boswell, a professor of management at Texas A&M University. Yet she’s reluctant to say it’s all bad. She notes that people can get a lot of satisfaction from accomplishing tasks and being part of a successful team. My personal experience confirms this—I sleep the soundest when I’ve just met a deadline and submitted a project, even if it’s 1 a.m.
Berkeley’s Hochschild acknowledges that it’s best to strive for balance. She also admits that most of us won’t get there. “These days,” she says, “more people are in jobs where there is no such thing as signing out.” On that note: Good night.