Want to change the world? You have to work at least 80 hours a week, according to Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Long hours are a point of pride in the technology industry, where 70 hour weeks can be in the job description.
But those long workdays are hurting employees with chronic illnesses or disabilities, according to Rachel Thomas, a startup co-founder and engineer.
Thomas laid out her argument in a pair of Medium posts early last week. She wrote that she was interested in the topic in part because of her own health challenges, which include two brain surgeries and a life-threatening brain infection. After she posted on Twitter about her health, Thomas said other tech workers contacted her to tell her about chronic illnesses or disabilities they didn’t want their employers or coworkers to know about.
“It was simultaneously surprising and not surprising. I was like, wow, there are a lot of people that are dealing with this I didn’t know about,” Thomas said in an interview with this news organization. “And I totally get why they would not be comfortable sharing that.”
Tech workers, she said, are worried about being open about disabilities or health concerns because they don’t want to be seen as less capable or unable to do the work needed. The long hours, however, can clash with workers’ health priorities.
“Many people with chronic illnesses or disabilities have fewer hours in the day. Many of us need more sleep than healthy people (yet still wake up feeling awful),” she wrote. They also have to take time for medical appointments, physical therapy and the challenges of navigating the medical system.
There is also an emotional toll, such as worries about asking for necessary accommodations, or feeling like they can’t then push for a promotion or raise because they’ve used up their goodwill in the company.
“Many people worry that if they share about their disability, people may accuse them of ‘faking it’ if they are not perfectly consistent in their behavior,” Thomas wrote.
The challenges can hold employees and companies back, said Thomas, who co-founded fast.ai to teach AI to the general public and previously worked for Uber as an engineer and data scientist. For one, the products companies design would benefit from being worked on by individuals with disabilities because consumers also include people with disabilities. And companies, she said, don’t end up getting the most out of their employees.
She pointed to research that suggests working 70 or 80 hour weeks isn’t actually better for the employee or the company. Being overworked can decrease productivity and impede creativity.
In a new book, Basecamp co-founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson argue that working more than 40 hours a week is unnecessary and write, “Workaholism is a contagious disease.” A 2014 study from Stanford University found that employees working 56 hours a week get about as much done as those working 70 hours.
Thomas, who said at fast.ai that she’s been able to adjust for her medical needs, has seen first-hand how a lack of flexibility around disability issues can hurt both employees and companies. While on disability leave from a previous job, Thomas told her manager she was ready to come back part-time. She said her manager refused because he was worried it would be too hard to explain to his superiors why she was in the office but not taking on a full-time workload. She said she extended her disability leave until she could return full-time.
“That was kind of disappointing and hard, though, because I was actually eager to go back to work part-time,” she said.
Thomas said the industry also struggles with subtle ways people with disabilities feel uncomfortable or excluded, such as insensitive comments from co-workers, or not knowing how to explain long gaps in their resume.
“An area where I think the tech industry struggles in general, is also just basic empathy and kind of building empathy for people,” she said.
Does tech’s culture of long hours hurt workers with disabilities?