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Does hard work pay off? Research examines return on long hours

They say hard work pays off. But, as Dr. Dora Gicheva explores in a recent paper, the return on that hard work could vary tremendously depending on a person’s occupation.

Gicheva, associate professor with the Bryan School’s Department of Economics, began her career as a labor economist, completing dissertation work on the subject of workers and how they are rewarded for long hours. Consider someone in finance, or perhaps at a law firm, routinely working overtime.

Dr. Dora Gicheva
Dr. Dora Gicheva’s paper Occupational Social Value and Returns to Long Hours appears in the July issue of Economica.

“They also get paid a lot,” said Gicheva. “It really helps these people’s careers take off if they put in that work. But then I started thinking more about other occupations where workers are still putting in 50 hours a week or so, but it doesn’t help them progress as much.”

These tend to be “helping occupations,” as Gicheva puts it, or jobs that involve providing help or service to others. Examples include nurses, social workers, or teachers.

“I saw that in some occupations workers don’t get paid for the extra hours but they do it anyway. Are they happy to be doing it? Or are they forced to and they’re upset about it because they’re not getting paid for it? We had surveys about satisfaction and looking at those — and actually teachers, therapists, social workers — they tend to have pretty high job satisfaction. I thought that was interesting. There must be some sort of intrinsic motivation driving workers,” said Gicheva. “Public school teachers and public sector workers, their salaries are pretty much fixed, so putting in extra hours doesn’t really help them make any more money. But we still see a lot of public school teachers work more than 40 hours a week.”

Gicheva says it often comes down to motivation.

“Not all workers are putting in extra hours just for the money,” she said. “Some do because they think what they do is important.”

During her research, Gicheva also found women tend to be drawn to these helping occupations.

“It’s not immediately clear why,” she said. “But it’s consistent with the notion that women think it’s more important to have an occupation that helps others. This is not generalizable to everybody, it’s just trends in the data. That doesn’t mean there aren’t men who don’t care about these helping jobs or women who aren’t in it for the money. In general, the workforce as a whole, more women tend to care about the social value of their occupations.”

Gicheva’s paper Occupational Social Value and Returns to Long Hours appears in the July issue of Economica, a peer-reviewed journal. Gicheva currently has another paper under review, an extension of this research in which she takes a closer look at the labor market for teachers.

“Other papers have looked at the level of pay for teachers, and whether an increase would draw in those who don’t have that intrinsic motivation. I don’t think it’s an argument to not pay teachers or nurses more, but there’s this idea that if you pay more, you’ll get more workers who don’t have this intrinsic motivation,” she said. “Ideally, we want to be able to reward teachers who are good, motivated teachers, but it’s hard. With policy, we’ve tried to reward effort, good performance, or students doing well, but it’s hard to measure a teacher’s output. We want the most motivated teachers to go into teaching, but a lot of them would make more money doing other things so they do other things. It’s important to figure out how to attract motivated workers to jobs.”