- Over the course of an 8-hour workday, the average employee works for about three hours, in actuality.
- Research indicates that five hours is about the maximum that most of us can concentrate hard on something.
- Countries like Germany, Norway, Sweden and France are proving that you don’t have to work 8-hour days to be productive.
It’s not uncommon to wonder who invented the 40-hour workweek and why. Is 40 hours the amount needed that leads to maxim productivity and happiness? Or is it perhaps an archaic standard from decades ago?
The 40-hour workweek is rooted in industrialism. When it was established, most people worked in factories and in manufacturing jobs.
They started working when they got to work and quit working when they left. Working from home or outside of business hours was impossible back then.
In 1817, Robert Owen (a Welsh labor rights activist), coined the phrase, “Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”
At the time, factory and manufacturing workers were working anywhere from 80 to 100 hours a week.
The Ford Motor Company advanced the idea of a “shortened” workday of only eight hours in 1914, which scaled back from a 48-hour to a 40-hour workweek after founder Henry Ford believed that too many hours were bad for workers’ productivity.
In 1940, Congress set the American workweek at 40 hours.
Industries in the rest of the world began working the shortened work week at the beginning of the 1900s.
Now, in 2021, and with the advancement of remote working, many people are beginning to argue that the 8-hour workday isn’t ideal for maximum human productivity.
Does working less hours maximize productivity?
Over the course of an 8-hour workday, the average employee works for about three hours, in actuality.
Ryan Carson, CEO of the technology education company Treehouse, has seen his employees become happier and more productive since he implemented the 32-hour work week back in 2006. Core to Carson’s leadership philosophy is the belief that forcing people to work 40-hour weeks is inhumane.
The brain naturally functions in spurts of high energy for roughly an hour, followed by spurts of low energy for about 15–20 minutes.
This natural flow of energy (and lack of) leaves workers wavering between focused periods of high energy followed by far less productive periods, when we get tired and become distracted.
“Research indicates that five hours is about the maximum that most of us can concentrate hard on something,” Alex Pang, founder of Silicon Valley consultancy Strategy and Rest told Wired.
UK workers believe that over 36% of their time spent at work is unproductive.
Countries like Germany, Norway, Sweden and France are proving that you don’t have to work 8-hour days to be productive.
In Sweden, the introduction of six-hour work days was established to motivate employees to work smarter at work while having more time to spend at home.
Compressed working hours might be ideal for workers
No longer are the majority of modern people working 100 hours a week as they did in the industrial era and with the advancement of automation and other technologies, humanity is learning how to work more effectively and more quickly.
Soon, it may not be necessary for society to uphold the 40-hour work week.
Rita Fontinha, associate professor in strategic human resource management at the University of Reading’s Henley Business School, believes there are clear upsides to compressed working hours.
“It has benefits not only for individuals’ quality of working life, but also for organizations’ financial performance,” Fontinha told Wired.
Jan-Emmanuel de Neve, associate professor of economics and strategy at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, said his research reinforces the argument that five-hour working days lead to greater employee wellbeing, which in turn leads to greater productivity.
A 2004 report published by the CDC’s Department of Health and Human Services found that people who routinely work extended hours and overtime are less productive than those who work eight hours a day, and people are less alert and more likely to make mistakes after the 8th hour of work.
Studies prove the effectiveness of a shortened workweek:
- During the first two months of 1974, government officials in the U.K. limited the workweek to three days in an attempt to save energy. Though people were working two fewer days a week, production only dropped 6%. People worked fewer hours, but they were more productive and less likely to miss work.
- From 2000-2008, the French government limited the maximum working hours per week to 35. In a survey of French employees, more than half said they were happier working reduced hours and more able to achieve a balance between work and life.
- From 2015-2017, a Swedish nursing home conducted a two-year experiment where its nurses switched from working 8-hour days to working six-hour days for the same pay. During this time, sick leave dropped by 10%. Nurses who were part of the trial claimed they were healthier, more energetic, and more alert.
A shorter working week has translated into increased well-being of employees among a range of indicators, such as stress, burnout, health, and work-life balance.
Is a shortened work day possible in the future?
The shift to remote work since the onset of the pandemic has shown that drastic changes in working practices can happen pretty quickly.
As employers begin to realize that a shortened work day/week doesn’t minimize productivity, we may begin to see more changes in the way that we work.