In the 18th Century, employees worked up to 16 hours per day. Everyone knew this was unsustainable and led to severe burnout and horrible quality of life for the working class. Then in 1856, the 8 hours movement began in Victoria.
The Labor unions fought hard for the idea of 888. They wanted 8 hours for sleep, 8 hours for work, and 8 hours for family, rest and play. This statue was erected at the top end of Russell Street in Melbourne in 1903, meaning that they had achieved this goal for most people sometime between 1856 and 1903.
In the US, railroad workers began to work eight-hour shifts in 1916. Ford Motor Company followed suit in 1926 when they cut the working hours of their employees to 8 hours per day while doubling wages. The reduced work hours and better pay led to a happier and more committed workforce, and productivity increased. More leisure time and money also led to more workers buying more stuff (including Ford cars), which the government realised was better for raising GDP. Other companies also discovered that workers were more focused and productive when they worked less. So an eight-hour workday subsequently became the new norm.
Since then, the working hours have begun to creep back up again, especially in the US. Among people employed full-time, the average employee works 47 hours per week. 40% of full-time employees now work over 50 hours per week, with only 8% working less than 40 hours. So much for 8-hour workdays being the standard.
The Negative Consequences of Long Work Hours
Research has shown:
- Working more than 10 hours per day can increase your risk of cardiovascular issues by 60%
- Regularly working more than 10 hours a day can also increase your risk of stroke by 29%.
- Working more than 11 hours a day leads to increased depression risk.
- Working 12 hours days increases your risk of making mistakes at work by 23%.
- In companies where the average weekly work time is under 43.5 hours per week, barely any fatigue-related problems are found.
- In companies where the average weekly work time is between 43.5 hours and 46 hours, minor fatigue problems are detected.
- In companies where the average weekly work time is over 46.5 hours, severe fatigue-related issues are seen.
- The rate of relationship problems in those working 50-60 hours per week is 10%
- The percentage of relationship problems in those working more than 60 hours per week is 30%.
- Long working hours are linked to poorer mental health and sleep quality.
- Long working hours are also linked with increased smoking, excessive alcohol consumption and weight gain.
- Long working hours are related to lower job performance, as well as less job satisfaction and lower overall life satisfaction.
What if We Did Work Less?
The above infographic by Ohio University highlights why we need to work less. If the top 10% of employees in terms of productivity work in 52-minute blocks followed by 15- to 20-minute breaks, they can only do seven 52-minute work blocks daily. That is 7 x 52 = 364 minutes of work per day. That means we shouldn’t be putting in more than 6 hours and 4 minutes of work per day.
We also should be taking 1 hour and 56 minutes of breaks spread out across the day if we want to be at our most productive. That’s six breaks that are 19 minutes and 20 seconds long, or five 15-minute breaks and one 41-minute lunch break. As the infographic says, eight-hour days are only productive when we take sufficient breaks, and few people do.
A shorter workday is an alternative for people or organisations that don’t want to take regular breaks. However, the average person is only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes daily. So what would happen if we reduced the workday to only 6 hours per day and paid people the same amount?
For a 6-hour workday to be effective, it would be necessary for companies to make it harder for their employees to waste time. Putting a block on news and social media sites would give the average person 1 hour and 49 minutes of their typical workday back. With the extra time after work, these employees could check the news and social media if they wanted to. If the average employee is 20% happier and healthier with six-hour workdays, they will be less likely to look for other jobs.
Microsoft has also recently experimented with four-day workweeks in Japan. When workers took the Friday and the weekend off, productivity went up 40%. Only 10% of the staff who tried this weren’t more productive overall. They also cut meeting times down to a maximum of 30-minutes each. I’m sure that this helped as well.
When other companies have tried four-day workweeks, they manage to produce 25% more output with the same size staff. They also find it easier to fill vacant positions when they arise, as more people like the four-day-a-week full-time job than a typical five-day-a-week role.
Since returning to Melbourne and full-time work, I have noticed that much of my stress and fatigue has returned. Finding the right work/life balance isn’t easy, especially with the uncertainty and anxiety created by the COVID-19 pandemic. I’m grateful to have full-time work doing what I love to do, but working in a way that isn’t harmful to my health and well-being is still a work in progress for me.
However you decide to manage your workload, please understand that working long hours without regular breaks is not sustainable. We can address this by working fewer hours in a day or fewer days in a week. Or you can merely get up from the desk and walk around a bit more when you notice that your productivity and energy levels are dropping. Getting outside for lunch and away from screens can also help. As can taking some pressure off of ourselves.
Working hard and being busy are seen as status symbols in Western society too frequently. Stepping out of this culture and into “island time” for 18 months was one of the best things I could have done for my fatigue, happiness and overall well-being.
The biggest question I still have is whether or not we can learn from our experiences and what the research says. Again, it seems counter-intuitive, but working less could help us be a healthier, happier, and more productive society.