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Time to Rethink the Workweek

29 Nov. 2017 Posted by aadams

Amara Lang, Junior Account Manager

With the industrial age came what we know as the eight-hour workday, or 40-hour workweek. A couple hundred years later and we’re now well into the information age. Technological advances have changed our lives both personally and professionally, maximizing efficiency and the swiftness of information exchange—information like this blog you’re reading right now!

With this new age of efficiency, many wonder: Why are we still working 40 hours a week?

For better or worse, technology has changed the way we do our jobs. Almost every facet of work—document storage, database technology, transportation, printing, publishing, communication, etc.—has been hastened. In fact, technological advances have increased productivity about 1 to 3 percent annually since the 1970s. One study predicts that half of U.S. jobs could be automated in the next two decades. These factors all contribute to rethinking the workplace, including what we define as the workweek.

A key difference between now and the 1900s, when the 40-hour workweek was first popularized, is that occupations have transformed alongside more efficient technological practices. Yet, we’re still adhering to definitions and norms shaped over 100 years ago.

A recent study of almost 2,000 workers revealed that most spend just three hours of their eight-hour day actually working. Another study concluded that waking up before 10 a.m. is unnatural, considering the workday does not coincide with our circadian rhythms. Knowing what we now know begs the question as to whether the eight-hour workday is necessary or even practical (it certainly isn’t biological).

Americans also live in the most overworked developed nation in the world. Unfortunately, we seem to have fallen back into the old habit of working more than 40 hours a week; most Americans now report working 44 to 60 hours per week. According to the International Labour Organization, “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.”

Why is this bad? Overwork has a range of negative effects like time taken away from family life as well as increased health risks—including stress, heart disease and stroke—that can lead to premature death. Premature death due to overwork in Japan has gotten so bad that the Japanese gave it a name: “Karoshi,” or “death by overwork”—and they don’t even work as much as Americans! All this taken into consideration, it’s easy to see why contemporary standards should be set and organizations should care.

Denmark, Netherlands, and several other European Union countries have adopted a 30 to 35-hour workweek average. With shorter workweeks than the United States, these nations also boast a higher gross domestic product than the U.S. Coincidentally, most countries with shorter workweeks are happier than their American counterparts. If American employers evolve alongside other developed nations in reducing hours in the typical workweek, a happier workforce could be realized. Why should employers care about a happier workforce? Because, as previously discussed and according to Gallup, a happy employee is a productive employee.

When Henry Ford famously adopted the 40-hour workweek model, productivity increased. Applying a similar shift for our new age could do the same thing. As seen with other popular contemporary trends, including remote work, the application of these reframed approaches to workforce resilience can lead to decreased stress, improved longevity, the attraction and retention of top talent, increased happiness, and increased time spent with family and doing the things we love.


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