Why Working Fewer Days/Hours is Better for Everyone

Happy businessman at the beach

A lot has happened since John Maynard Keynes predicted in 1930 that a century later, we would be working only 15 hours a week. He may have made this calculation on expected output in relation to increasing productivity, but he must have left out the variable of the profit motive in a context of corporate greed. He didn’t get to see the competitive world of unimaginable globalization and interconnectedness that we can see today, and he didn’t realize to what extent organizations would demand their employees work such long hours. However, working long hours does not mean increased performance or profits. In fact, it may be the opposite.

Post explanation »

So funny story… I spent all day writing a well-researched article and I finished and tried to publish it, but for whatever reason, since WordPress hates me, it decided neither to publish nor to save anything I wrote. Therefore, in the interest of retaining my sanity, I am not going to spend several more hours writing the same article. Rather, I am going to take snippets from some of my sources and just let them do most of the talking. I can’t stand when my work is rendered completely meaningless, which is probably as stressful as some of the people who have to work long hours in jobs they hate. (Did you like that segue? I hope you appreciated the effort, because that’s all I can muster…)

From Business Insider:

In July, the president of the U.K.’s leading public health industry group declared that the five-day workweek is causing people too much stress and that Britain should instead switch to a four-day workweek.

Our work, depending on the nature of the job and our feelings towards it, can give us a sense of who we are, but it can be detrimental to our health and happiness if we work too much. Ontop of the obvious health benefits that my come with things like being able to sleep more, having less stress, and not exerting ourselves as much, a decreased workweek could also allow us to feel that we are more in control of our lives.

Organizations like 37signals (a software company) have a four-day (32-hour) workweek from May to October. Treehouse (an online education company) does the same thing, but for the whole year. The New Yorker reports on both a more extreme proposal, as well as some interesting research.

In 2010, Anna Coote, the head of social policy at the New Economics, made a recommendation even more extreme than [Mexican telecom mogul, Carlos] Slim’s [three-day workweek proposal]: a twenty-one-hour work week. According to Coote, a twenty-one-hour week would help to address “overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life.” We may be reluctant to believe these claims—isn’t long, hard work necessary for success? But here’s the thing: when workers feel that they are being cheated or slighted by their employers, their productivity falls and their propensity to cut corners increases.

In a study of non-union employees in the United States, the organizational psychologist Daniel Skarlicki found that workers’ perception that they are being treated unfairly not only causes negative emotions but also breeds a desire for retribution. If employees feel that they aren’t paid enough, they may feel entitled, for instance, to mistreat office property or to waste office materials. If they feel that they are being asked to work longer hours than they’d been led to believe they would have to, they may decide to spend more time in the office on Facebook, take longer lunch breaks, work more slowly, or call in sick. A common gripe is, “I don’t get paid enough to work as hard as I do.”

New research from the University of Melbourne gives some support for the reduced workweek. They found that for people over 40, productivity drops after more than 25 hours per week. WeForum reports:

For up to 25 hours a week, cognitive function was improved by working more. However, after that increasing working hours begins to have a negative impact on cognition.

“In the middle and older age, working part-time could be effective in maintaining cognitive ability,” conclude the authors. “Our study highlights that too much work can have adverse effects on cognitive functioning.”

[. . .] Geraint Johnes, professor of economics at Lancaster University is quoted by theBBC as saying: “The research looks only at over-40s, and so cannot make the claim that over-40s are different from any other workers.”

In fact, there is a lot to be said for productivity going up by reducing employees’ work hours, which is why statements like this, from Business Insider, bother me:

While Americans work fewer hours than people in East Asian economies like Singapore and Korea, the U.S. is still working much harder than most of Europe.

Work hours say nothing about the quality – only the quantity – of work; and depending on your definition (effort?) I would argue that you cannot even measure how hard someone works by their hours. From personal experience of working 13-, 14-, and 15-hour days in the Japanese labour market, I can attest to the fact that productivity drops after a certain point. That is to say, just because you’re working long doesn’t mean you’re working hard. In fact, I would argue there’s a limit to how hard you work when you are too exhausted.

While it may be true that having someone work a 16-hour shift may be necessary in “peak season,” etc., there is absolutely no way that working 16-hour shifts all week, all month, will yield increased results. Think of my analogy of two students learning guitar. Who do you think would play guitar better after a month: Student A, who learns guitar in one 30-hour sitting; or Student B, who learns it for one hour every day? Of course you know the answer, but based on the fact that organizations are paying people more money to work in unproductive hours, they don’t seem to get it.

In other words: in the short-term, long hours may make sense… but after a while, the exhaustion catches up to the worker, to the point that one hour of their tired work is actually not worth one hour of their work at optimal performance (i.e. well-rested, motivated).

The fashion company Link Theory Japan kicks out their staff everyday at 6:00 PM – an incredibly forward-thinking policy in a country that is notorious for having (often arbitrarily) long hours for employees. In fact, I know many people for whom a 6-hour work day (yes, it does exist in Japan!) is the norm, and they speak about it as if they could never go back to an 8-hour day. For others, working 12 hours is normal, and depending on their perceptions of fair compensation, it may not have so many negative consequences for them.

Therefore, the consequences of overwork may depend not just on work hours, but employee perceptions of the job, as someone who works only a few hours in a job they hate may take a greater psychological toll than someone who works longer hours in a job they love.

This brings me to new research on school children. A recent study found that when an elementary school switched from the five-day week to the four-day week, math scores increased (though reading scores did not). The authors even say that they were expecting to find negative effects of a shortened week, but were as surprised as you may have been to hear about these results.

And then there’s the case of Sweden, as reported by the New York Times:

Sweden has long been a laboratory for initiatives to strike a better work-life balance, part of a collective ideal that treating workers well is good for the bottom line. Many Swedish offices use a system of flexible work hours and parental leave and child-care policies are among the world’s most generous.

The experiment at Svartedalens goes further by mandating a 30-hour week. An audit published in mid-April concluded that the program in its first year had sharply reduced absenteeism, and improved productivity and worker health.

“We’ve had 40 years of a 40-hour workweek, and now we’re looking at a society with higher sick leaves and early retirement,” said Daniel Bernmar, leader of the Left party on Gothenburg’s City Council, which is running the trial and hopes to make it the standard. “We want a new discussion in Sweden about how work life should be to maintain a good welfare state for the next 40 years.”

This brings us to an excellent question that Big Think tackled – what would we do with our free time, if we can reduce our work hours/days?

According to Dan Ariely, lots of things – some directly work-related, some not, but all likely to improve the quality of our working lives. Humans are not, Ariely notes, motivated only by money on the one hand and the desire to sunbathe while sipping martinis on the other. Ironically, a shorter “official” work week would likely weaken the defensive barriers many employees erect between work and play, freeing their minds to reach “a-ha” solutions to work-related problems even while sunbathing, and to use their time at the office more efficiently and effectively.

I want to leave you with this quote from University of Leeds Professor David Spencer (bolds are mine):

For us to reach – and enjoy – a three or ideally a four-day weekend, we need to reimagine society in ways that subvert the prevailing work ethic. We need to embrace the idea of working less as a means to a life well lived.

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