Should We End the 40-Hour Workweek?

The 40-hour workweek is turning 81 years old this month. Set into law in the United States as the “Fair Labor Standards Act” and going into effect on October 24, 1940, the law established the standard workweek as 40-hours.

Much has changed since 1940. To put it into context, the Fair Labor Standard Act began when the oldest member of the Beatles was born, a time when milk could be paid for with a couple of quarters, and a generation void of nearly all the technology we have today (for example, the household television set was still unfathomable to most people).

Yet, with all of that has changed in the last eight decades, including advances in technology that make it easier than ever to work efficiently, the relic of the 40-hour workweek still remains. Is it time to make a switch? Here are a few perspectives to consider:

Changing Employees and Families

In 1940, only 9 percent of all families included dual-career couples, where both partners had jobs. Today, this number has increased significantly. There has been a rapid rise in women in the workforce, such that roughly 7 out of every 10 mothers currently engage in paid work. A 2019 survey of 35,000 employees in marriages or partnerships across a variety of professional sectors found that 89 percent of women and 70 percent of men are part of dual-career couples.

Clearly, the “typical” household has changed since 1940. Twitter user @PsychicxGoddess aptly tweeted earlier this year, “Gentle reminder that the 40-hour workweek is outdated and was designed with the assumption someone else was going to be always taking care of the cooking, cleaning, and household errands.” When the popular Instagram @scarymommy reposted this tweet, it clearly struck a chord, with over 125,000 people liking it.

Exhaustion is On the Rise

Data recently released in a joint report  from McKinsey & Company and LeanIn.Org shows that 42 percent of women and 32 percent of men are experiencing burn out, a rise from the numbers reported a year prior. Despite some companies beginning to recognize that employees are increasingly exhausted and overwhelmed, the situation continues to get worse rather than better.

A major contributor to the rise of exhaustion is “coronasomnia,” a term describing the drastic change in sleep patterns resulting from chronic stress from COVID-19. Many individuals are engaging in what’s known as “revenge bedtime procrastination, ” trying to capture some time for themselves through browsing the internet or scrolling through social media at night, ultimately interfering with their ability to get a good night’s sleep.

The same pattern exists for working mothers, who are increasingly exhausted from putting in more hours of combined paid and unpaid work by the end of Wednesday than most people work during a whole week, with Dr. Shelby Harris calling it “Momsomnia.” It’s safe to assume that the Venn diagram cross-section of Momsomnia and coronasomnia is a recipe for even greater burnout risk among working mothers.

Exhausted employees feel overwhelmed and depleted by their work. They are less productive and perform worse at their jobs. In fact, research I recently worked on with my own team found that emotionally exhausted employees are less likely to feel empowered at work, with severe long-term consequences, such as a lowered chance of getting promoted. Accordingly, the increase in employee exhaustion should be concerning to employees and employers alike.

Other Countries Show Success in Reducing Work Hours

The average American works 300 hours more per year than the average European, in part because of legislation in some European countries that has forced shorter workweeks. For example, in the early 2000s, France enacted a law that reduced working hours by over 10 percent, from 39 to 35 hours, while keeping income steady.

2008 study looking at the effects of the French workweek change was equivocal on the change, with results depending on a number of personal characteristics. However, more recent research from 2019 provided insights into the long-term results of the change for workers. For women, although some of this newfound free time was often allocated back to childcare, it was spent on “quality time and investment in children rather than to more monotonous core housework tasks.” For men, the change often allowed weekend chores to be moved to the weekdays, freeing up more time for leisure on Saturday and Sunday.

A recent experiment in Iceland demonstrated that the 40+ hour, five-day workweek is not the most productive or effective model. The experiment moved 2,500 workers to a 36-hour, four-day workweek with no changes in pay. The results were that employees were less stressed, had more time to spend with family, and there were no losses in workplace productivity. Because of this “overwhelming success,” the schedule is now being implemented for 86 percent of all Iceland workers.

What Employers Can Do

The “great resignation” means that U.S. employers need to rethink their retention strategies. Part of doing so may be reconsidering expectations of employees’ normal schedules.

For example, the company The Financial Diet is experimenting with reducing employee work hours by 20 percent without reducing pay, through streamlining meetings and emphasizing efficiencies. Other companies such as Lockheed Martin allow for 9/80 schedules, where employees have every other Friday off. Research has similarly shown that shift workers who work longer daily schedules followed by more days off are happier and more effective than those who worked shorter daily schedules over longer time periods, even if the total amount of hours worked is nearly identical.

Some companies, such as BNY Mellon, have even implemented a Results Only Work Environment, or ROWE. In this environment, employees are able to work wherever and whenever they want as long as they are delivering results. Those who implement this structure have reported double-digit gains in employee engagement and productivity.

In summary, much has changed in the last 81 years and there are promising options that counter the standard 40-hour workweek. Yet, perhaps because people are biased to retain the status quo, many companies are keeping antiquated schedules. As the U.S. adapts to the post-COVID work world, it’s worth reconsidering if this norm is still the best, for both employees and employers.

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