In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, creating the 44-hour workweek. In 1940, the act was amended, creating the well-known 40-hour week. According to The Washington Post, factory workers in 1900s worked at least 53 hours per week. The Post's Isabell Sawhill points out that nearly 80 years of unchanged labor laws was never the plan. Sawhill reports:
Economists predicted that as we became more prosperous we would choose to work fewer hours. That hasn’t happened. Instead, we have kept on working at about the same pace as we did earlier in our history, pouring all of the gains from productivity growth into ever-higher levels of consumption: bigger houses, more electronic gadgets and fancier cars. With increased prosperity, people are buying more and more stuff, but they don’t have any more time to enjoy it. A reduction in the standard workweek would improve the quality of life, especially for those in hourly jobs who have benefited hardly at all from economic growth in recent decades.
The 40-hour workweek was not meant to be the end-all, be-all of business. In the U.S., the precedent was first set forth by the Ford Motor Company in 1926 for its factory workers. Ford also reduced the workweek for its employees from six days to five in 1922.
In the 1920s, Ford aimed to achieve maximum factory productivity and a better work-life balance for employees. Work and life demands have both evolved drastically since, yet the workweek has remained the same. Businesses must catch up or face economic consequences. Sawhill explains:
Shorter hours could have another benefit: more jobs for workers who would otherwise be left behind by technological change. Many economists believe that as existing jobs are replaced by machines and artificial intelligence, new jobs will be created in technical, management and service fields.
A shorter workweek might help to spread the available jobs around. Germany and other European countries, along with a few U.S. states, used this strategy during the Great Recession. It kept more people on the job but at shorter hours and reduced unemployment. Using a similar strategy to deal with automation and long-term joblessness, although controversial, should not be dismissed out of hand.
The 40-hour workweek has been the standard for almost 80 years for a simple reason: it works. Reducing hours across the board would not lead to greater productivity. Instead, the same problems would follow employees into a 30-hour system. For entrepreneur Ryan Carson, founder and CEO of Treehouse, a shorter workweek destroyed his employees' work ethic.
'If you put them in a race with someone for one month, and one works 60-hour weeks, and one works 32, then yes, the person who worked 60 hours is going to get more done in that one month,' he said. 'How about in 12 months? How about in seven years?'
Three years later, Carson works 65 hours per week, proving that his theory fell short of reality. Carson told The Business Insider's Rachel Premack the 32-hour workweek was actually counterproductive:
'It created this lack of work ethic in me that was fundamentally detrimental to the business and to our mission,' Carson added. 'It actually was a terrible thing.'
Work demands have increased in the last few decades. According to Business Insider's Shana Lebowitz:
In a survey by tax and professional services firm EY, half of managers around the world reported logging more than 40 hours a week. In the US, a whopping 58% of managers said they worked over 40 hours a week. Presumably, some of that time is spent at home answering emails, instead of at the office. Meanwhile, there's evidence that some Americans see working around the clock as a kind of status symbol. While many people claim to be working 60- or 80-hour workweeks, much of that time isn't very productive. In fields like finance and consulting, some workers may only be pretending to work 80-hour weeks, a recent study suggests.
Picture this: You walk into your office on Monday morning and take a seat. You're the first one there–congratulations! At six o'clock that afternoon, people start to trickle out the door, but you feel obligated to stay. This is your opportunity–first one in, last one out–you know the boss will notice if you do it consistently, and eventually you will reap the rewards. If this sounds at all familiar to you, then you too have succumbed to the prestige of working the most hours per week. Don't worry, you're not the only one.
According to CNN's Jacqueline Howard, working more than 40 hours per week leads to negative health outcomes, including mental, physical and relational health. According to Howard:
A study published in the journal Psychological Medicine in 2011 found that working more than 55 hours per week predicted subsequent depressive and anxiety symptoms.
A paper published in the British Medical Journal in 2015 found that alcohol consumption was more likely to rise to risky levels among adults who work more than 48 hours a week compared with those who work average hours.
Studies also found a 40 percent increased risk of coronary heart disease among those who work more than a 50-hour workweek. Research proves that workweek policies are about more than productivity and economics; they are a public health concern as well.
...when employees worked up to 49 weekly hours, the output was proportional to the time worked. After that, it’s a totally different story. Output per hour starts to fall after 50 hours and becomes almost useless after 56.
At the same time, working less than 40 hours per week does not allow for enough time for work to be completed, particularly with the inevitable inefficiencies of business in mind. With meetings and distractions breaking into all employees' days, 8-hour days compensate by providing time to "claim and defend your time from what threatens to whittle it away," according to TinyPulse's Tyler Adams.
...working 40 solid hours doesn’t mean being in the office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
I’d argue that a well-structured 40-hour workweek has space both for the 'stuff' of a job and the soft side, too.
Meaning, a 40-hour week has time built in for mentoring, relationship-building, planning and much more. Taking breaks in the midst of the day is vital to work-life balance. All it takes is simple planning to achieve this within the existing workweek; shortening time spent at work will lead to the same problems without awareness of your own needs and how to fulfill them.