70-hour workweek: Narayana Murthy’s suggestion a recipe for disaster

Indian IT industry
India's IT industry needs to look beyond traditional services, and focus on cutting-edge technologies such as AI, and sustainable solutions.

70-hour workweek debate: When billionaires urge the country’s youth to work harder and spend extra hours at the office, they frequently face disdain and criticism. Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy’s suggestion that young people work 70 hours a week has also sparked controversy and a timely debate about work-life balance — a luxury few employees enjoy, despite Indians rank as the sixth most hardworking people in the world.

International Labour Organisation (ILO) data shows that the average Indian works 47.7 hours weekly, not including commuting time. This is longer than the work hours in China (46.1 hours), Vietnam (41.5 hours), Malaysia (43.2 hours), the Philippines (39.2 hours), Japan (36.6 hours), the United States (36.4 hours), and the United Kingdom (35.9 hours). Despite this, Indian wages remain among the lowest globally, with manufacturing wages at $0.8 per hour — far below those in China, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Indonesia comes closest to India at $1 per hour, as reported by Morgan Stanley Research.

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What’s wrong with 70-hour workweek

The issue with extended working hours is that the benefits often accrue only to the company, not the workers. Critics, citing the low starting salaries for engineers at Indian tech companies like Infosys, have raised concerns about the potential physical and mental health impacts of relentless work. The burden on women, who manage responsibilities at work and home, is particularly heavy, often exceeding 70 hours weekly.

In a podcast hosted by Mohandas Pai, Murthy lamented the low productivity among Indians, proposing longer working hours as the solution. However, he overlooked that longer hours do not guarantee increased productivity, and in fact, the opposite may be true. Notably, only three countries currently endorse a workweek longer than 50 hours, with the UAE at the forefront with over 52 hours.

Research indicates that productivity actually drops after 50 hours and sharply declines after 55. The focus should be on the quality of work, not the quantity. Moreover, working excessively long hours can harm physical health. Studies have shown that individuals working 55 hours or more weekly face a 35% higher risk of stroke and a 17% increased risk of heart disease compared with those working 35-40 hours per week.

The other side of the coin

Nonetheless, some industrialists, like CP Gurnani, CEO of Tech Mahindra, align with Murthy’s view on a 70-hour workweek. Gurnani suggests that Murthy’s comments might be seen from a holistic perspective, implying that work is not limited to one’s role in a company but also includes personal development — 40 hours for the employer, and 30 for oneself.

Murthy is not alone in his belief that without the same level of success achieved in countries like China, India will struggle to keep pace with more advanced nations. However, the challenge is not merely about hard work but also the relevance and quality of education and skills required in the modern world. Unfortunately, an education system that often produces skills mismatched to current needs has let down young workers, and the culture within corporate India hardly warrants glorification.

The ILO has reported that companies with work-life balance policies benefit from increased employee retention, better recruitment, reduced absenteeism, and heightened productivity. Consequently, several countries are considering making a four-day workweek standard, significantly reducing working hours. Some developed nations are already testing this, such as Belgium, which in 2022 allowed workers to choose a four-day week without a pay cut to foster a more dynamic and productive economy.

The Nordic region offers valuable lessons. Often leading the rankings for the world’s happiest countries, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden boast a workweek of around 40 hours. It seems these countries have deciphered the formula for harmonising work and life. With a combined population of 27 million and a GDP of $1,800 billion, the success of the Nordic model speaks for itself.

While well-intentioned, Murthy’s call for a 70-hour workweek overlooks the potential drawbacks of extended working hours, such as decreased productivity, increased health risks, and work-life balance challenges. Research suggests that a 40-hour workweek is the optimal balance between productivity and well-being. Companies should focus on creating a culture of high-quality work and providing employees with the resources and support they need to succeed, rather than simply demanding longer hours.