Does the 40 Hour Work Week Make Sense?

By Emma Hickey

The standard work week in the United States is 40 hours long, but most Americans work more than that. According to a 2016 Gallup poll, American employees are actually working an average of 47 hours a week. Many startup and tech employees, those in law, finance and healthcare, entrepreneurs, and people who work multiple jobs, end up working 50-60 hours a week. That’s definitely too many hours, but why? Why shouldn’t we work over 40 hours a week, and why is 40 hours the standard, anyways? Is there a better way? Well, science and history have the answers, and there is a better way.

Working increased hours doesn’t lead to increased productivity. Whether you regularly work two hours late each day, or you work entire weekends, you’re not getting as much done as you think you are. In 2004, the CDC published a report titled Overtime and Extended Work Shifts: Recent Findings on Illness, Injuries, and Health Behaviors in which they reviewed 52 recent reports that “examine the associations between long working hours and illnesses, injuries, health behaviors, and performance.” Their findings were conclusive—once the 8 hour/day and 40 hour/week threshold is crossed, employees are less likely to focus, more likely to make mistakes and more likely to be injured. Your body and your mind need to rest, and if you push yourself beyond 40 hours a week, you won’t get the rest you need to keep functioning in top form. Your mind is also only able to focus for a finite amount of time, and 40 hours a week already tests those limits. So how did we end up with 40 hour work weeks in the first place?

For something that dictates our lives to the extent the 40 hour work week does, reaching that number of hours was somewhat arbitrary. The notion of the 8 hour work day seems to have sprung up independently among various groups in the US during the industrial revolution. As it became clear in the 1800’s that industrial work was here to stay, labor unions formed to push for better working conditions, which included shorter work days during a time when people regularly worked 100 hours a week. There were disjointed protests and strikes throughout the country to this effect for much of the latter half of the 19th century. A popular rallying cry for this movement was, “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what you will.” The stock market crash of 1873 also inspired shorter work days, with people believing that this would allow available work to be shared between more people, decreasing unemployment rates. Slowly, this motivated industries, like the railroad, and companies, like Ford, to implement 40 hour work weeks, but it wouldn’t become the US standard until 1940, when Congress passed The Fair Labor Standards Act.

The 40 hour work week is a blessing when compared to the 100 hour weeks Americans worked before work weeks were standardized, but it was born out of desperation and not considered thought. Eight hours a day for work, eight hours a day for sleep, and eight hours a day for everything else is a tidy answer to the question of how many hours people should work, but it’s more poem than science. Luckily, many researchers, scientists, and psychologists have since re-examined the concept of the 40 hour work week and found actual data to support the idea that 40 hour weeks—and 8 hour days—doesn’t actually make a ton of sense.  

The human brain can only focus for about 4 hours. This is what author Alex Pang found in his 2016 book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less. In his book, Pang makes the case for 4 hour work days. Some of the smartest and most prolific thinkers of our time, he argues, spend only 4 hours a day on serious, innovative thinking. Charles Darwin worked for two 90-minute cycles in the morning, and then one hour in the afternoon, while mathematician Henri Poincaré worked from 10am until noon, then 5pm until 7pm. The same pattern can be found in the routines of Thomas Jefferson, Alice Munro and John le Carré. Journalist Oliver Burkeman’s review of Pang’s book in The Guardian also points out that our hunter and gatherer ancestors appeared to have worked only 4 hours each day, too—just enough time to keep everyone well-fed without burning themselves out. Pang’s point is this: the brain can only sustain focused thought for a limited amount of time, and once that time is up, it won’t do any good to push yourself.

A Harvard Business Review piece examining “experts” reports findings similar to Pang’s. The article states,“It is interesting to note that across a wide range of experts, including athletes, novelists, and musicians, very few appear to be able to engage in more than four or five hours of high concentration and deliberate practice at a time.” The article continues to say, “In fact, most expert teachers and scientists set aside only a couple of hours a day, typically in the morning, for their most demanding mental activities, such as writing about new ideas.” If the top thinkers in the world can’t sustain more than a few hours of intense thought, who are we to think we can handle more? 

It would be a hard shift from 8 hour work days and 40 hour weeks to 4 hour work days and 20 hour work weeks, but there are organizations and companies around the world trying out 6 hour work days and 30 hour work weeks. A hospital and nursing home in Sweden has been testing out this very idea for the past few years. The facility mandated 6-hour work days, 5 days a week, for all its employees, and the employees were paid the same as they were when they worked 40 hours a week. An audit published after year one found, “the program in its first year had sharply reduced absenteeism, and improved productivity and worker health.”  Workers reported being happier and having more energy through the day, and patients reported that the standard of care they received from staff had improved. This makes sense, when taking into account Pang’s research and the demanding nature of hospital work—the brain can only intensely focus for so long. Amazon in the US also has a 30 hour work week program where employees receive the same benefits as 40-hour/week employees, but they’re paid less and considered part-time, meaning Amazon hasn’t quite set out to redefine full time work in the way the Swedish hospital has. Still, it’s a step in the right direction towards a work weeks that better suits the human brain than the 40 hour week.

It’s time Americans innovate on the 40 hour work week. With more information available to us about ourselves, our minds, and the ways in which our brains function best, it’s clear that there are better options out there than the 40 hour work week. Whether it’s a lean 20 week, a week structured so all your heavy thinking is done in 4 hour-a-day blocks while the rest of your time is spent on more general housekeeping tasks, or you take a page out of Sweden’s book and try out 30 hour work weeks, all evidence points towards you being more productive and efficient. There are options out there that make more sense than the 40 hour work week, and it’s up to us to identify them and determine which is the right fit. 

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