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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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Can We Bring It Back?

Bringing back the 40-hour work-week is going to require a wholesale change of attitude on the part of both employees and employers.

For employees, the fundamental realization is that an employer who asks for more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week is stealing something vital and precious from you. Every extra hour at work is going to cost you, big time, in some other critical area of your life. How will you make up the lost time? Will you ditch dinner and grab some fast food? Skip the workout? Miss the kids’ game this week? Sleep less? (Sex? What’s that?) And how many consecutive days can you keep making that trade-off before you are weakened in some permanent and substantial way? (Probably not as many as you think.) Changing this situation starts with the knowledge that an hour of overtime is a very real, material taking from our long-term well-being — and salaried workers aren’t even compensated for it.

There are now whole industries and entire branches of medicine devoted to handling workplace stress, but the bottom line is that people who have enough time to eat, sleep, play a little, exercise, and maintain their relationships don’t have much need of their help. The original short-work movement in 19th-century Britain demanded “eight for work, eight for sleep, and eight for what we will.” It’s still a formula that works.

 

For employers, the shift will be much harder, because it will require a wholesale change in some of the most basic assumptions of our business culture. Two generations of managers have now come of age believing that a “good manager” is one who can keep those butts in those chairs for as many hours as possible. This assumption is implicit in how important words like “productivity” and “motivation” are defined in today’s workplaces. A manager who can get the same amount of work out of people in fewer hours isn’t rewarded for her manifest skill at bringing out the best in people. Rather, she’s assumed to be underworking her team, who could clearly do even more if she’d simply demand more hours from them. If the crew is working 40 hours a week, she'll be told to up it to 50. If they’re already at 50, management will want to get them in on nights and weekends, and turn it into 60. And if she balks -- knowing that actual productivity will suffer if she complies -- she won't get promoted.

Of course, hiring new people is out of the question -- again, especially when the workers are salaried. Squeezing extra time out of an employee when you're not going to have to pay extra for it is seen as a total freebie by managers who cling to the delusion that they're getting 50 percent more work in 50  percent more time. This belief also drives the fallacy that you can fire one person and divide their job between two other people, who will work an extra 20 hours per week for free -- and that there is no possible downside to the company for doing this.

And of, course, that's wrong.

And it hurts the country, too. For every four Americans working a 50-hour week, every week, there's one American who should have a full-time job, but doesn't. Our rampant unemployment problem would vanish overnight if we simply worked the way we're supposed to by law.

We will not turn this situation around until we do what our 19th-century ancestors did: confront our bosses, present them with the data, and make them understand that what they are doing amounts to employee abuse — and that abuse is based on assumptions that are directly costing them untold potential profits. We may have to appeal to the shareholders, whose investments are at serious risk when employees are overworked. (At least one shareholder suit has already been filed against a computer game company that was notorious for working its people 80 hours a week for years on end. It was settled out of court on terms favorable to the plaintiffs.) We may have to get harder-nosed in negotiating with our bosses when we first take the jobs, and get our hours in writing up front -- and then demanding that they stick with the contract down the line. And we also need to lean on our legislators to start enforcing the labor laws on the books.

 
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