It’s a typical Friday afternoon at the office. The weekend is minutes away, and everyone is sharing their plans. Catching up on couch potato time, taking a hike, or quality time with the kids.
People start packing up their desks, closing laptops, and logging out of Slack. Then you blink, and it’s somehow Monday again. You’re back for another 40-hour week of caffeine-fueled work at your desk, counting down the hours until it’s Friday again.
Welcome to the modern 40-hour work week.
If only things were different. Then you remember that for some people things are different. Not everyone works 40-hours a week, and yet, people around the world still get things done.
It’s time to take a closer look at the 40-hour work week, where it comes from, and why we work the way we do. Because the way we work is changing fast.
And the 40-hour work week isn’t aging well.
The origin of the 40-hour work week
At the start of the 1800s, the U.S. economy was booming in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Production was at an all-time high due to advances in coal power, mechanized production, new infrastructure and transportation technology. And of course, cheap, abundant labor moving to cities and urban centers.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries it was common to work 12 or even 16 hour days, 6 or 7 days a week. Often in uncomfortable and unsafe conditions with few (or no) breaks.
Workers also had no real legal protections or leverage to ask for better wages or safer work environments.
As conditions worsened workers began to strike and organize. But the battle for safe, humane working environments took decades.
Timeline of worker’s rights in the U.S.
- 1843 — Lowell Female Labor Reform Association petitions for a 10-hour work day.
- 1866 — The National Labor Union proposes a law for a 40-hour work week, but it doesn’t pass Congress.
- 1886 — Illinois passes a law mandating 8-hour work days. But most employers ignore it. This leads to a massive strike in Chicago known as the Haymarket Riot.
- 1894 — 250,000 factory workers protest 12-hour work days and reduced pay in the Pullman Strike. 2,000 US Army troops break the strike and 13 people die. President Grover Cleveland declares Labor Day a national holiday during this strike. Which is weird.
- 1938 — Congress passes the Fair Labor Standards Act, creating the 40-hour work week we know today.
The Fair Labor Standards Act also guaranteed overtime pay, minimum wage ($0.25/hr at the time which is about $4.67/hr today).
Fun fact, this law also created the concept of the “weekend.”
But ironically one of the first adopters of a shorter work week was the guy who revolutionized the moving assembly line.
The ‘Model-T’ work week
You could say that Henry Ford was obsessed with productivity.
So when he learned that working longer hours actually diminished production at his factories, he wanted to find a better way. So he shortened the work day to 8 hours.
Ford tested out his new “40-hour work week” in 1926 (8 years before the 40-hour week became law). And the results were so positive, he spread the practice to his other factories.
Ford also realized that if his workers spent all their time working, they wouldn’t have any leisure time to spend any of the money they’d earned.
And that’s not a great way to sell cars.
Ford didn’t see the reduction of working hours as lost time or missed productivity. He saw it as essential to a booming economy.
“It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either ‘lost time’ or a class privilege.”Henry Ford
A 40-hour work week was a huge step forward. It paved the way for better working conditions, paid time off, maternity leave, and other workplace protections.
But the core idea — that we should work 40 hours a week — has remained largely unchanged for the past 84 years. Which begs the question.
Why are people with smartphones, 5G, satellites, and the magic of the Internet still working like people who wore bowler hats and sock garters?
The modern workplace
Things are a lot different now than during the Great Depression. No more polio, food at the store is wrapped in plastic, and you probably don’t know someone that works in a factory or a mine.
According to recent labor reports, only about 8% of jobs in the US are related to “manufacturing” (compared with around 33% of all jobs back in the 1930s). I’m writing this from an air-conditioned café with a nice cup of coffee next to me, not some content sweatshop in a basement with no ventilation and lead paint chips for “snacks.”
It’s objectively good that fewer people work in dangerous, unregulated mines and tetanus-riddled factories.
But progress comes with its own problems.
The way we work today has fundamentally changed the boundary between “work” life and “home” life.
Thanks to the rise of personal computers and smartphones, you’re always available. And that means, the office has started to follow millions of people home at the end of the day — if you don’t already literally work from home.
Many employers expect their teams to check email, texts, Slack, and a growing number of communication channels even when they’re not on the clock. And that constant white noise of work is screwing us up in all sorts of ways.
Even if you work a traditional 40-hour work week, you’re likely clocking a lot more hours than you realize.
In 2012, work done after work was so frequent that 80% of U.S. workers claimed to add an extra 7 hours to their work week. But are all these extra hours even necessary?
One study showed that people only spend 45% of their time at work doing their main job duties. The same study showed that we spend a whopping 14% of our time “sending, responding to, or sorting email” each week.
That means that most people spend 40% of their time at work not doing the thing they’re being paid to do. I’m sure we’ve all been to a 30-minute meeting that could’ve been a quick email instead.
You might think to yourself, “Well, sure there’s downtime at work, but it only happens once or twice a day. How bad can that really be?”
But it’s never just one or two meetings or late night emails, is it?
When notifications can come in at any time, especially as more people move to remote work across various time zones, our schedules shift to “always on.” And we don’t even realize it.
If you’re not vigilant about your time off, you can spend a lot more than 40 hours a week thinking about work.
The 40-hour work week is unproductive
Working all the time sucks. But the most infuriating thing about our always-on modern work culture is that it doesn’t even make you more productive.
Multiple studies have shown that working beyond 40-hours a week makes you less productive. This is due to our limited capability for deep work as explained in Deliberate Practice Theory.
This theory says that if you’re new at something, you have about one good hour of high-intensity work in you.
More seasoned professionals have about 4 hours of productive work in them. Beyond that, any work you do won’t have a high impact or help further your career.
Even worse, after the 8-hour mark, you become less alert and have a higher margin for error. Working past 8 hours not only makes you less efficient, it can undo some of the productive work you did earlier.
But it gets worse than sloppy work. Because it turns out that if you work 40 hours a week, you might be working yourself to death.
The 40+ hour work week is (literally) killing you
A 2016 World Health Organization study found that over 745,000 people died from stroke and other heart diseases as a direct result of working 55 hours a week.
The WHO even classified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon in the international classification of diseases.”
That’s a long-winded way of saying, hundreds of thousands of people are working themselves to death.
In Japan, workaholic culture became so common during the 70s that they coined a term for it — karoshi, which means ‘death by overwork.’
Japan reformed many of their labor laws, improving workplace conditions and reducing work hours across their workforce. In 2017, the average Japanese worker averaged 33-hour workweeks.
But the problem persists in Japan and here in the U.S. In 2018, only 52.4% of workers took their full paid leave.
8 out of 12 CDC workplace studies associated overtime with sickness and death. Another study revealed that overtime is also associated with higher on-the-job injuries.
And burnout extends well beyond the office.
Burnout isn’t ‘being productive’
Excessive work is related to a cascade of health risks, like unhealthy weight gain in men and increased substance abuse.
One study even found that people who worked 12-hour shifts were more likely to abuse substances, like alcohol or cigarettes, than employees who worked 8 hours.
And we’re working more than ever these days. Salaried U.S. workers average 49-hours a week.
Even remote work is burning us out.
This report shows that there’s been a 2.5-hour increase in average work days for countries like the United States, U.K., and Canada.
So if we’re working more than ever, and over work is an increasing health risk, what’s the solution? It turns out, there are several alternative work weeks worth exploring.
3 alternatives to the 40-hour week
Monograph CEO and co-founder, Robert Yuen has been on board with the 4-day workweek since his company started back in 2016. He claims it’s been vital to the “health and well-being of employees.”
Iceland adopted a 36-hour work week — with no pay cuts — from 2015 to 2019 and it was an “overwhelming success.”
Even Microsoft saw a 40% productivity boost when they introduced a 4-day workweek.
But the 40-hour work week has been part of our culture for so long that most companies can’t fathom trying a different approach. Even if it can benefit employees and increase productivity.
Today, an exhausted workforce has begun evaluating what they’ll risk for a paycheck. In April 2021, nearly 4 million people put in their notice in what’s being called “The Great Resignation.”
Unlivable wages and extreme hours are becoming a thing of the past. People are searching for better options, and more importantly — a better life. 56% of people surveyed said that “flexibility” was their primary reason for looking for a new job.
And (some) companies are listening. Here are the pros and cons of three popular alternative work weeks. See if any are right for you.
The benefits of a flextime work schedule
Who’s it for?
- Early birds
- Time shifted independent contractors
Flextime allows workers to create their own hours. This includes when you start and finish your work day. Flextime employees still work 8 hours a day, but the traditional 9am to 5pm schedule is gone.
Flextime works well for people who crave autonomy. But it can also appeal to a broader group of employees.
- Feel like starting at 7am and going for a hike at 3pm? You’re a flextime worker.
- Want to take a 2-hour lunch break to get some grocery shopping done before rush hour? You can work a little later to make up for it.
Flextime is also especially nice for parents who need to get a later start in the day or pick them up at 3pm. It’s why some countries, like Spain, have a built-in break in the afternoon.
Flextime is just that — flexible. Workers can adjust their schedule each week to deal with personal demands and busy weeks in the office. Which makes sense. Not all weeks are equally busy.
But the biggest pro is that working flextime means you don’t have to fight rush hour traffic anymore. You can also try that morning yoga class and arrive refreshed at 11am if you want.
The problem with a flextime work schedule
Flextime isn’t perfect.
It can be hard to schedule things with your team if everyone is working different hours. You might be an early bird ready to go at 7:00 am with a presentation. But you have to wait until 1pm for everyone to be on the clock.
It also makes it harder to get a bird’s eye view of what everyone on the team is working on. Not that micromanaging is a good thing!
Remote working has allowed for more flexibility — including when people work. But it’s also made it harder for companies to maintain company culture and a tight-knit team.
The benefits of a 4-day work week (“compressed work week”)
Who’s it for?
- Highly productive people
- Jobs that need a lot of collaboration
- People that like 3-day weekends (which is everyone)
A four-day work week means working 10 hours a day, four days a week.
The state of Utah actually did this back in 2008 for public workers, and they found people to be more productive and less likely to skip work. It also saved them more than $4 million. So that’s nice.
The best thing about a 4-day work week is a full-time paycheck with a three-day weekend every week. You also save money and headaches by having one less day you have to commute to work.
Mother Earth is also happy that you’d cut down on your emissions.
The problem with a 4-day work week
Unfortunately, a 10-hour day isn’t for everyone.
Working two more hours a day can be exhausting. Remember, research shows that we make more mistakes when we work past 8 hours. And if you have things to do after work, like picking up the kids or that yoga class, clocking out at 7pm might be tough.
The benefits of a 32-hour work week
Who’s it for?
- Really productive people
- Top talent (as a hiring incentive)
- Remote teams
- Non-service facing companies
This work schedule is like the 4-day work week, but you work 8 hours a day instead of 10 hours. Some companies swear by the 32-hour week.
The best part of the 32-hour work week is that you get a three-day weekend every week without the 10-hour days. This is especially motivating for people who like deadlines. It might sound stressful, but pressure makes diamonds.
The problem with a 32-hour work week
The biggest complaint with the 32-hour week is that it’s not enough time. Many people can’t deliver the same quality and quantity of work as 40 hours.
Also, depending on the type of work you do — like sales or real estate — an extra business day can make a big difference. If your sales team only has four days, competing against a company that works five is a lot harder.
The same is true for customer expectations. Your clients might not understand why no one is there to answer their questions on a Friday.
The benefits of alternative work schedules
There will never be a perfect work model that suits everyone. But that doesn’t mean you can’t improve on what we’ve got.
There’s a decent amount of proof that these alternatives might be better for you and your team than a 40-hour work that’s literally older than a Model-T.
People are more productive when they work less
When Iceland tested a 32-hour work week (with no pay cuts) they saw productivity and service levels remain the same. Some trial workplaces even improved.
The U.K. government saw only a 6% dip in productivity when it slashed its working week down to three days back in 1974. The goal for them was to save energy, so the small dip in productivity was worth it.
People are happier
For eight years France dictated that a 35-hour work week was the best way to do business. Over half of the French workers surveyed said that they were happier with their work-life balance.
People are healthier
It doesn’t take a doctor to realize that if people are less stressed, they’re generally healthier.
One Swedish nursing home staff saw sick leave days drop by 10% when they cut shifts from 8 hours down to 6-hour days.
The future of work
We need to change the way we think about work.
In 1938, establishing the 40-hour work week was a massive improvement for millions of working class people in factories. But times have changed.
We’re not in the middle of the Industrial Revolution anymore. It’s time to stop punching the clock like Fred Flintstone.
Henry Ford had the right idea when he questioned why we work the way we do. But we need to keep evolving how we work to optimize systems that fit the current times.
More companies need to embrace the possibility that there are other ways to get work done. The rise in remote work, mountains of evidence about the benefits of shorter hours, and trial experiments across the globe all point to the same thing.
The 40-hour work week is dead. Long live whatever comes next.
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