Working and studying ‘out of hours’ can harm motivation

Working during atypical work hours like weekends and holidays undermines employees’ intrinsic motivation to work.
- Laura Giurge, LSE
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The traditional 9-to-5 work week has been replaced in many cases by hybrid hours tailored to individual needs.

But working outside traditional hours, and checking in at all hours of the day, night, weekends, and holidays, is not necessarily beneficial for the 21st-century workforce, according to new research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Cornell University.

“There’s a lot of buzz around the perks of having flexibility in when we work. But our latest research suggests an important downside: working during atypical work hours like weekends and holidays undermines employees’ intrinsic motivation to work,” says study co-author Laura Giurge, an Assistant Professor from LSE.

“Even if you’re still working 40 hours a week, you’re working during time that you’ve mentally encoded as time off, or as time that should be for a vacation, and that can make you feel suddenly that your work is less enjoyable,” adds co-author Kaitlin Woolley, Associate Professor from Cornell University.

The researchers address the issue of working 'out of hours' in the paper, “Working During Non-Standard Work Time Undermines Intrinsic Motivation,” published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

They set out to examine the motivational consequences of working and studying during non-traditional hours, such as weekends and holidays, among employees and college students.

In one study, they approached Cornell University students studying in a campus library on President’s Day. They reminded half of the participants that they were studying during a federal holiday; the other half did not receive this reminder. They then measured students’ intrinsic motivation for their schoolwork – asking them how enjoyable, engaging, interesting, and fun they found their materials to be. Students who were reminded the day was a federal holiday reported that their work was 15% less enjoyable.

In another study, the researchers measured whether a simple calendar reminder on a federal holiday (Martin Luther King Jr. Day) would alter full-time workers’ perception of work enjoyment. They found that work was 9% less enjoyable on the holiday Monday, compared to a typical Monday, despite engaging in similar work-related activities on both days.

In a third study, participants were surveyed on a Tuesday, with no reminder that it was a typical work day, then again on a Saturday. Some participants were reminded that it was Saturday, “a weekend day,” while others were given no reminder. Both groups reported lower levels of work motivation on the weekend day, although the effect was stronger in the reminder group.

The researchers  attribute this discrepancy to the idea of “collective time off” – having free time when friends and family are also not working.

“The real benefit of time off on the weekend or on holidays is that it’s not just that I have time off, but my family and friends have time off, too,” says co-author Kaitlin Woolley. “And so one thing that we suggest for managers is, can you create a ‘weekend shift’ so people feel like they’re in it together with other people?”

“Another important thing for managers to keep in mind is that leisure is harder to justify than work and so they should make sure that employees who work outside traditional work hours are supported and even encouraged to take time off in order to disconnect and recharge” added Laura Giurge.

With work-life balance, or setting boundaries between work and “play” times, being an increasingly important aspect for many employers and employees, the researchers believe their findings can have important implications for employee motivation and productivity.

“Intrinsic motivation is a key predictor of persistence as well as many other outcomes like creativity, volunteering, and even work-life balance. We know working during time off harms wellbeing but this research has shown it can also harm people’s desire to engage in work out of interest, enjoyment, and meaningfulness,” says Laura Giurge.