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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Should We Bring Back the 40-Hour Work Week?

On a recent Saturday night, as I sat next to someone in a restaurant who had pulled out a Blackberry to check work email at 9 PM, I could not help but have my heart sink a little bit. It was a Saturday night. What could possibly be so urgent with work? I also found myself thinking something that a few years ago I would have never expected:

“Can we please go back to a 40-hour work week?”

I have been an advocate for years of moving away from the 40-hour work week because it is an old-fashioned construct, one that was put in place at a time when working conditions were less humane and pay was not commensurate with the hours worked. It was put in place when we were working in more of an industrial economy than the current knowledge-based economy, and it usually forced people to be creative, productive, and focused on work during the hours that their employer dictated.

We are running into a new challenge, though. For a significant percentage of the working American population, work is not confining itself to just 40 hours a week, or even 60 hours a week. With cellphones in our pockets and laptops in our bags, it bleeds into our time at the gym, our time with our kids, our time at night when we should be resting and rejuvenating.

Before we were tethered to work with technology, even if people had to show up at work from 9 AM to 5 PM every day, at least they knew that when they left the office in the evening and on Friday afternoon, they did not have to keep working. There was a much clearer distinction between work time and personal time. Now, many managers seem to think that because someone works for them and because they have the technology necessary to communicate from anywhere, that communicating (and therefore working) at any time is fair game.

The problem is that when people agree to take a job, they are most often still thinking about the cost-benefit ratio of that work through the lens of a 40-hour work week. If you are being offered a $60,000 salary, and you work 2,000 hours a year, that works out to $30 per hour. If however, you end up working 3,000 hours per year, or about 60 hours a week, your hourly wage drops down to $20 per hour. As more and more of your time is given over to your employer, on an hourly basis, you are getting paid less and less.

So, if we are in a time when employees and their time are being taken advantage of by employers, should we be advocating to go back to a more strict, 9-to-5, clock-in, clock-out environment even for salaried employees? Before jumping to that conclusion, it is important to look at a few nuances of the 40-hour work week.

First, the 40-hour work week makes the assumption that for any job, the ideal amount of work time in a week is 40 hours. When paired, as it traditionally is, with a 9-to-5 work day, it also assumes that people do their best work, are most creative, and have no other competing life or family obligations during those hours. Both of these are false assumptions, and are in large part responsible for a movement away from strict work hours.

On the other hand, when we move away from set work hours we run into the issues with boundaries between work and life that are having a significantly negative impact on employees—in many cases leading to higher levels of stress and burnout, leading to decreases in productivity and employee engagement.

So, what can we do? We can advocate for setting daily and weekly time boundaries.

We do not necessarily have to focus on the total number of hours per week, but what if companies could begin to make it a practice that before 9 AM and after 6 PM no one is expected to respond to any emails, and that the weekends are a time held sacred for things other than work? We would make tremendous progress and companies would probably find that they get higher-quality work. This shift will take considerable behavior change, but because employees are not robots with an infinite capacity for work, we are running out of other options.

Photo of woman leaving office courtesy of Shutterstock.

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