Americans aren't strangers to being overworked. But new data from the Melbourne Institute reveals that once employees hit middle age, it could actually pay to cut their hours.

In a study of both male and female employees over the age of 40, researchers found that participants experienced an improvement in cognitive performance as they ramped up to 25 hours of work a week. From there, however, things got dicey. After 25 hours on the job in a given week, those same subjects were said to experience a decline in performance.

Things played out even worse for those who tended to burn the midnight oil. Workers over 40 who put in more than 55 hours a week on the job showed cognitive results that were worse than those of retirees or unemployed individuals. And that's a good reason to limit your hours on the job.

Man sitting at laptop, holding his head as if tired


Will the three-day workweek actually fly?

If you're over 40 and thinking it's time to march into your boss's office and demand a lighter schedule, not so fast. Though it's true that performance among middle-aged and older workers peaks around the 25-hour mark, most employees need more than three workdays to put in that much time.

Think about your current schedule when you're in the office. Chances are, you spend a fair amount of time in meetings. They may be an obligatory part of your job but don't necessarily represent productive time when you're getting things done. Also, there's probably some amount of socializing that happens when you work on a team, whether it's breaking for lunch or engaging in brief conversations several times a day around the water cooler.

The point is that while it may seem possible, in theory, to condense 25 hours of work into three days, in reality, it's probably not. As such, your chances of altering your schedule in a major way may not be that great.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't think about reducing your hours, especially if you have a tendency to work upward of 50 hours a week. And it also doesn't mean you can't ask your manager for more flexibility if, say, you want to compress your workweek to four days to have more leeway in your schedule or save money on child care. Though companies aren't trending toward cutting employee hours (without simultaneously cutting pay), many are adopting more flexible approaches, so it's a conversation worth having, especially if you're a worker in good standing at your company and your job can largely be done independently.

Though 25 hours of work per week may be ideal for the over-40 set, it's doubtful that U.S. employers will make that the standard anytime soon. But if you make the most of the time you spend at the office, you might manage to cut back on hours and carve out more flexibility in your workweek. Both will serve the very important purpose of improving your work-life balance, as well as your overall quality of life.