The Rise and Fall of the 40 Hour Work Week

40 used to be the magic number. It was always assumed that when you worked a full-time job, you worked 40 hours a week. The start of the 40-hour work week goes back to the 19th century when labor groups in the US and UK used the slogan “eight hours’ labour, eight hours’ recreation, eight hours’ rest” to fight for better working conditions.

Since that time things have changed. The 40-hour work week is no longer the standard. 

So how many hours are we working?

In a recent study of about 10,000 managers in eight countries, it was found that people are working more and more hours since the economic downturn in 2007. Tweet: People are working more and more hours since the economic downturn in 2007. via @gethppy In many countries, working more than 40 hours a week is becoming common practice. At the time of the study, about half of the 10,000 managers worked more than 40 hours a week.

More specifically, in a Gallup survey of 1,200 adults, 21% work between 50 and 59 hours a week, 18% work more than 60 hours, and 11% work between 41 and 49 hours. That means that 50% of the adults surveyed work more than 40 hours a week. 

What do all these extra hours mean?

For many people, working more hours means that are trying to be more productive. Unfortunately, that may not always be the case.

Research done by John Pencavel of Stanford University, shows that productivity decreases after 50 hours of work and is almost zero when work increases to 55 hours. So basically, the more people worked past 50 hours, the less those hours added to their overall productivity. Making matters worse, working past 55 hours could even negate the gains in productivity from working between 40 and 50 hours. Fatigue, stress, accidents, sickness, and errors caused by working more than 50 hours made them less productive than if they had just stopped working.

In white collar jobs, working more than 60 hours a week caused productivity to decline by about 25%. In manufacturing jobs, every 10% increase in overtime results in a 2-3% decrease in productivity.

The bad news does not stop there. Not only does working more impact productivity, it also effects general health and wellbeing. Health organizations and researchers have found

  • Cardiovascular risks increase when people work more than 10 hours a day.
  • The risk of depression increases when people work more than 10 hours of overtime in a week.
  • Alcohol and tobacco use increase when people work more than 40 hours a week. Men are more likely to gain weight and women are more likely to become depressed.
  • Relationship problems increase by about 10% when people work more than 50 hours a week, 30% for more than 60 hours.
  • Overall stress related to working hours can disturb hormone levels, sleep, mood, memory, appetite, blood pressure, and more.

With all the reports of negative effects related to working hours, it is sometimes surprising to read that more and more people work more than 40 hours.

How did it get like this?

There are many theories about how this became the new norm.

Some blame technology. With the globalization of the economy and the ability to instantly connect with people all over the world, employees are being expected to put in more hours to keep up with aspects of the business in other countries. It can difficult, or even discouraged, to disconnect from technology when at home.

Others blame the economic climate. During the economic downturn, companies had to reduce the workforce. This created a situation in which employees had to take on the tasks of others, increasing the amount of work they needed to do. Sometimes people are worried about not having a job, so they take on extra work so that they feel their job is more secure.

And some blame the businesses themselves. Often times, companies want to increase productivity and decrease costs so much so that they put pressure on supervisors and workers to increase the amount of time they work.

It is impossible to blame one specific thing, but it can be said that working more than 40 hours a week is no longer an abnormal thing. For multiple reasons, it has become a part of the culture of the workplace. 

What can be done?

There is no quick fix to the dangers of working more than 40 hours. And research has found that one solution is not the best for all people.

Working Less

Recent research from the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research found that people over 40 are most productive when they work three days a week. Cognitive performance increases up to 25 hours and then begins to decline due to stress and fatigue.

While reducing the number of hours worked for all people over 40, this might not be a realistic solution, it does show the importance of helping employees manage stress and fatigue.

In some countries and companies, there has been a shift toward a 6-hour work day.

In Sweden, research was conducted to compare the effects of a 6-hour work day with an 8-hour work day. Researchers found that people who worked 6 hours were happier, more productive, and took less time off. Tweet: Research showed that people who worked 6 hours were happier, more productive, and took less time off. via @gethppy

The only problem was that the company taking part in the research had to spend money to hire more employees to accommodate for the employees who only worked 6 hours. While the workers were more productive, the researchers were not able to tell if the increase in productivity was enough to compensate for the funds used to hire more workers.

Some companies try to encourage employees to be more productive in less time but offering 4-day workweeks or more flexible schedules. This does seem to make employees feel like they have more control, leading to less stress and more happiness.

Using Social Leadership

In order for change to happen, there need to be changes in the culture of the organization. This means that supervisors, managers, and executives need to agree that the rising number of employees working more than 40 hours a week is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Asking a few questions can start the process of addressing employee needs.

  • How is your work/life balance?
  • What is your schedule like?
  • What kind of schedule would help you be most productive?
  • Do you need to be in the office to get your work done?

Including employees in the decision making process from the beginning can not only address working hours, but also improve employee engagement and decrease burnout. Assuming it is feasible, you can always come up with an alternative work schedule that suits the business and the employee.

No matter the history of the 40-hour work week or the current struggles with the economic climate, companies who value their employees, as well as their “bottom line”, can take simple steps to improve employee working hours. Research shows that it’s worth it.

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