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Does The 40-Hour Workweek Make Sense?

Does the 40-Hour Workweek Make Sense?Does the 40-Hour Workweek Make Sense?
min read
August 21, 2023

Did you know “we’ve always done it this way” are some of the most dangerous words in business?

Yeah, we thought so. But here’s the thing: The old “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality is something that frequently creeps up in the business world—especially when it comes to work schedules.

Need proof? Workweeks that consist of eight-hour days, five days per week have been considered “standard” for a long time. In fact, that hasn’t changed in nearly a century. 

But, does the 40-hour workweek make sense anymore? Where did this work schedule come from? And what other options are out there? We’re digging into all of your questions about the standard American workweek in this post. 

Where Did The 40 Hour Workweek Come From?

Spending 40 hours at work each and every week seems like a pretty big chunk of your life. But, believe it or not, it was actually a significant improvement over where we started.

As the Washington Post reported, the workweek was 68 hours in 1860 and about 65 hours at the turn of the century. But, we’re still not at the 40-hour workweek we’re familiar with today. So, when did the 40-hour workweek start?

It was a long road to get to those 40 hours, and there’s a lot of historical context. 

If we look back to the 19th century, amidst what's often called the second Industrial Revolution in the United States, working conditions were less than ideal. This was particularly true for factory workers who worked long hours for minimal pay in oftentimes unsafe environments. 

Workers began to form labor unions to demand more reasonable hours, wages, and conditions. There were unions for a variety of industries and trades, but one of the most notable overarching unions was the National Labor Union. It was established in 1866 and was focused on limiting workdays to eight hours for federal workers. 

Shorter working hours gained traction in the private sector when Henry Ford of Ford Motor Company pioneered more reasonable working conditions for his factory employees

He started in 1914 by raising the minimum wage to $5 for the day, which was a huge increase over the previous rate of $2.34 for nine hours. 

He also believed shorter hours would boost productivity, so he reduced the 48-hour workweek for his factory workers to a five-day, 40-hour workweek starting in 1926. He implemented the same change for his office workers the following year.

Ford is often credited as starting the snowball rolling down the hill for reasonable pay and hours, and formal legislation followed his example. This included:

There you have it—a brief history of the average 40-hour workweek. 

Is The Standard Workweek Actually 40 Hours?

While the 40-hour workweek has been seen as the norm since the 1900s, it turns out that many workers are still investing longer hours than what this typical schedule indicates. 

Research conducted by Gallup in 2014 found that full-time workers in the United States worked closer to 47 hours per week. More recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that full-time American workers spent eight and a half hours per day on the job, meaning that the typical workweek in 2019 was closer to 42.5 hours per week. 

However, work schedules shifted once again since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A study of over three million people across the globe found that the length of the average workday has increased by 48.5 minutes.

So, it’s tough to tell where we land right now with a “typical” workday. However, it’s a safe bet that the standard workweek is longer than the oft-cited 40 hours. 

What Does The Ideal Workweek Look Like?

Eight-hour workdays, five days per week is the default amongst most companies and full-time workers. But, does that mean that a 40-hour workweek is best? Not necessarily.

There’s been a lot of research into what should be considered an ideal work schedule in terms of increasing productivity and employee satisfaction. Here are a few options that studies have looked at:

1. Five-Day, 38-Hour Workweek

Time management expert, Laura Vanderkam, conducted a study of 900 people to understand how the number of hours you work impacts your perception of how much time you have.

She discovered something interesting—people who worked longer actually felt like they had less time to do their job. There was only an hour difference between people who felt super crunched for time (worked an average of 8.6 hours) and people who felt as though they had all the time they needed (worked an average of 7.6 hours). Vanderkam concluded a 7.6-hour workday was ideal, equating to a 38-hour workweek.  

2. Four-Day, 32-Hour Workweek

Perpetual Guardian, an estate planning company in New Zealand, tested a four-day workweek. They kept pay and expectations the same, but cut an entire day off the week. 

The results were impressive. Company leaders said stress levels and sick days decreased, while productivity increased from 30-40%.

Several other companies—such as Microsoft Japan and ShakeShack—have introduced and tested four-day workweeks and experienced positive results as well, particularly in terms of employee satisfaction.

3. Five Day, 30-Hour Workweek

Sweden tested out six-hour workdays, which equated to 30-hour workweeks. The study showed promising results in terms of reduced sick leave and increased output, but it also received a fair share of criticism in terms of cost and long-term feasibility. 

Amazon followed a similar model and piloted a 30-hour workweek experiment with select teams and employees. Employees worked from 10AM to 2PM Monday through Thursday, and could allocate the remaining 14 hours of work throughout the week as they saw fit. While the results of the experiment weren’t made public, it’s evidence that even large companies are testing out alternatives to a “traditional” workweek. 

As these different options show, there’s not one right answer—and the ideal workweek can differ from employee to employee, company to company, or industry to industry. 

While there’s not a blanket formula for the perfect number of working hours, many companies have offered shorter workweeks, increased flexibility, results-based company cultures, and even unlimited vacation days for employees.  

Needless to say, there’s plenty of experimentation happening to find a work schedule that supports employee well-being (which, in turn, boosts engagement and retention), without hurting a business’ bottom line. 

So… How Many Hours Should Your Employees Work Per Week?

Here’s the short answer: It depends. Like we mentioned above, there’s not a black-and-white answer that applies across the board.

When you’re trying to find the most suitable workweek for your own staff, here are a few tips to help:

Adjusting your workweek is a noble effort, but it’s also a big change—which means it shouldn’t be done without careful thought and planning. 

Like any other adjustment in your business, give it the time and consideration it deserves. That way, you’ll land on a work schedule that works for your employees and for your business.

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