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Why We Have to Go Back to a 40-Hour Work Week to Keep Our Sanity

One hundred fifty years of research proves that shorter work hours actually raise productivity and profits -- and overtime destroys them. So why do we still do this?
 
 
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If you’re lucky enough to have a job right now, you’re probably doing everything possible to hold onto it. If the boss asks you to work 50 hours, you work 55. If she asks for 60, you give up weeknights and Saturdays, and work 65.  

Odds are that you’ve been doing this for months, if not years, probably at the expense of your family life, your exercise routine, your diet, your stress levels, and your sanity. You’re burned out, tired, achy, and utterly forgotten by your spouse, kids and dog. But you push on anyway, because everybody knows that working crazy hours is what it takes to prove that you’re “passionate” and “productive” and “a team player” — the kind of person who might just have a chance to survive the next round of layoffs.

This is what work looks like now. It’s been this way for so long that most American workers don’t realize that for most of the 20th century, the broad consensus among American business leaders was that working people more than 40 hours a week was stupid, wasteful, dangerous, and expensive — and the most telling sign of dangerously incompetent management to boot.

It’s a heresy now (good luck convincing your boss of what I’m about to say), but every hour you work over 40 hours a week is making you less effective and productive over both the short and the long haul. And it may sound weird, but it’s true: the single easiest, fastest thing your company can do to boost its output and profits -- starting right now, today -- is to get everybody off the 55-hour-a-week treadmill, and back onto a 40-hour footing.

Yes, this flies in the face of everything modern management thinks it knows about work. So we need to understand more. How did we get to the 40-hour week in the first place? How did we lose it? And are there compelling bottom-line business reasons that we should bring it back?

The Making of the 40-Hour Week

The most essential thing to know about the 40-hour work-week is that, while it was the unions that pushed it, business leaders ultimately went along with it because their own data convinced them this was a solid, hard-nosed business decision.

Unions started fighting for the short week in both the UK and US in the early 19th century. By the latter part of the century, it was becoming the norm in an increasing number of industries. And a weird thing happened: over and over -- across many business sectors in many countries -- business owners discovered that when they gave into the union and cut the hours, their businesses became significantly more productive and profitable. As Tom Walker of the Work Less Institute puts it in his Prosperity Covenant:

That output does not rise or fall in direct proportion to the number of hours worked is a lesson that seemingly has to be relearned each generation. In 1848, the English parliament passed the ten-hours law and total output per-worker, per-day increased. In the 1890s employers experimented widely with the eight hour day and repeatedly found that total output per-worker increased. In the first decades of the 20th century, Frederick W. Taylor, the originator of "scientific management" prescribed reduced work times and attained remarkable increases in per-worker output.

By 1914, emboldened by a dozen years of in-house research, Henry Ford famously took the radical step of doubling his workers’ pay, and cut shifts in Ford plants from nine hours to eight. The National Association of Manufacturers criticized him bitterly for this — though many of his competitors climbed on board in the next few years when they saw how Ford’s business boomed as a result. In 1937, the 40-hour week was enshrined nationwide as part of the New Deal. By that point, there were a solid five decades of industrial research that proved, beyond a doubt, that if you wanted to keep your workers bright, healthy, productive, safe, and efficient over a sustained stretch of time, you kept them to no more than 40 hours a week and eight hours a day.

 
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