The Rise And Fall Of The Legendary 40 Hour Work Week

By David Mizne

The 40 hour work week is a myth, a legend from years past. In many modern workplaces, you are more likely to see a unicorn in the conference room than an employee who punches in at 9 and out at 5.

This doesn’t mean that today’s talent works less than 40 hours, and in many cases the opposite is true. Many knowledge workers start working the minute they roll out of bed. They check emails at sunrise, or hop on early calls with distributed team-members and overseas customers.  By the time they roll into the office, they have already worked 3 or 4 hours.

For the most part, this freedom is a good thing. But the absence of boundaries between work and life can have long-term detrimental effects on employee productivity and performance.

Why 40 hours?

Eighty years ago, it was normal for people to work an average of 70+ hours each week. At one point employees (including children!) were required to work 14 hour days.

All of that changed in 1926 when Henry Ford standardized the 40 hour work week. His independent research showed that working more yielded only a small increase in productivity that lasted a short period of time. And before long productivity declined.

Finally in 1938, the 40 hour work week became law via the Fair Labor Standards Act. But don’t go running through the halls brandishing your copy of the FLSA just yet, this law only applies to hourly employees.

Burn Bright, Burn Out

In November, Fast Company journalist Rachel Gillett wrote an article entitled “Why Rectifying Our Culture of Overwork Is Easier Said Than Done”. Gillett admonishes today’s workplace cultures that reward overwork.

Overworking not only creates stress and a lack of balance, but sleep patterns suffer. Reduced downtime between work and sleep stifles innovative and creative thinking. Don’t believe me? Just read my last blog post.

Gillett explains that people work more than they should for a variety of reasons:

– They feel pressure to keep going because co-workers are still at their desks.

– Stressful deadlines are put in place, regardless of constraints on creativity.

– Some workplace cultures create the expectation of overwork.

When you’re always on fire, you eventually burn out. It is management’s responsibility to lead by example and explain that there are other important things in life, like health and family.

The Great Blackout(s) of 2014

During the last week of August and November, our CEO instituted two mandatory blackouts. All 15Five team members were asked not to check email, go into the office, or engage in any 15Five-related activities.

Instead, we were encouraged to relax, travel, read, spend time with family, or spend our time in whatever way has us feeling refreshed and renewed.

When we returned from the first blackout in early September (some of us refreshing and renewing ourselves at Burning Man), we began using a system called the 90 Day Game. Over the next 12 weeks, the team established goals and checked in weekly to report on accomplishments and challenges. We encouraged each other and held each other accountable, and yes many of us worked more than 40 hours during that time.

But that big push produced great results. Some team-members proclaimed that it was the best work they had ever done in their careers. And we again took time to spend with family and friends over Thanksgiving week.

You would think that in the final moments of my last day before vacation I ran down the corridor screaming “so long suckers”. Instead, I found it difficult to break away from doing the work that I love.

I checked my email on day one of the blackout and saw a PR opportunity with a rapidly approaching deadline. I thought, “well I’ll just do this one task…” Then Tuesday morning came and my latest blog post went live. I thought, “well, I should probably promote this on social media.” It wasn’t until Wednesday that I was actually able to pull myself away from work entirely.

That is why downtime is so important. Employees fall into the routine of work and it becomes all-consuming and hard to break away from. Thankfully I had an entire week and returned to work healthy, focused, and engaged.

Alternative Scheduling

I am fortunate to work for a company where my well-being is paramount, and I am supported to lead a balanced lifestyle. For those less fortunate, here are some suggestions to convince your boss to consider some alternative scheduling:

1) Offer the advice of other entrepreneurs. The second wealthiest man in the world, Carlos Slim, suggests working only 3 days per week. Of course Slim says that would necessarily extend retirement age to 75. Are you mocking us Carlos?

2) Appeal to their emotions. Have your child write a tender note suggesting that you work too much. Hey, it worked for this Google employee:

Google Letter 1Google Letter 23) Offer the advice of a medical professional. Dr. John Ashton has called for the British Government to “switch to a four-day week to help combat high levels of work-related stress, let people spend more time with their families or exercising, and reduce unemployment”.

The bottom-line here is that employees need to seek balance in their work-lives. “No pain, no gain” or “work hard, play hard” are not badges of honor. Ask yourself why you are working so much. Are you driven by pure desire, is it an organizational mandate, or do you have something to prove to yourself and others around you?

We are all working towards the fulfillment of company goals, which necessarily means some weeks will require more than 40 hours of work. But sacrificing time with family or the pursuit of personal goals creates disconnection from what is truly important – living well, realizing the company mission and accessing the joy inherent in giving your greatest gifts to the world.

Image Credit: Roland Tanglao

Google Letters: Imgur

How many hours per week is too much? How do you prevent burnout? Leave a comment below. 


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