If you’re currently working, chances are you’re locked in to the seemingly universal 40 hour work week. You probably start your day at 9 AM and end at 5 PM, nevermind the extra hours you probably put in here and there.
We’ve been working 40 hours a week since the 1930s, when Francis Perkins, proponent of workers’ rights and part of FDR’s administration, successfully passed the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 in order to protect workers from exploitation and excessive hours.
You’d think with all the technological advances we’ve seen in the 80 years since the 40 hour work week started, we’d be well on our way to decreasing the number of working hours needed per week. Instead, it looks like those hours have actually increased — the average work week looks more like 47 hours rather than 40 for most full-time workers, with nearly 40% reporting they work at least 50.
In my work as a career coach, I’m seeing more and more clients who are frustrated and increasingly burned out. They feel like work has taken over their whole lives, and even though more hours are being put in, they’re feeling sluggish and less productive.
The thing is, the more hours you put it, the less productive you actually are. It might sound weird, but the science shows that our concentration typically maxes out at 5-6 hours, meaning any work put in after that is less productive. But the good news is, there’s a silver lining… the 30-hour work week. And the results from those who have tried it have been remarkable.
Back in 2016, Amazon changed the game in the U.S. when they announced a new 30-hour work week initiative. It sounded almost too good to be true: employees would only work 30 hours a week, but would earn 75% of their old salary and retain the same benefits as they did on their old 40 hour schedules. And what they found was the same results that other companies in other countries reported — success! One New Zealand company wants to implement the change permanently after their trial period, and employees in Sweden reported increased overall happiness. It looks like the 30-hour work week schedule isn’t just a fantasy for those of us struggling to get through the 9-5 grind… it is an actual strategy that can help employees and companies alike be more productive and satisfied.
Here are a few of the main ways the 30-hour work weeks is beneficial:
- It benefits women. Studies show that on average, women spend twice as much time as men doing household work, and more women spend this time than men. Shorter work hours mean that women whose time after or before work is often consumed with chores will have more opportunities to join the workforce, without having to sacrifice other work.
- It decreases burnout. Burnout comes when work-life balance is shot, and people end up spending much more time focused on work than they do on their life outside the office. Not having time to spend with family and friends, or on hobbies and fulfilling activities, will leave anyone stressed, angry, and less productive. A shorter work week means employees have more time to focus on their personal lives, and when they come into work they’re more focused and refreshed. And like I mentioned above, we’re not actually built to concentrate deeply for more than 5-6 hours at a stretch, so keeping our concentration at its peak efficiency will help decrease mental exhaustion, a huge contributing factor to burnout (and it will increase your productivity!)
- It helps retain talent. Right now, employees are not as willing as they used to be to stay in jobs where they’re not satisfied or happy. Studies show that millennials, who make up 35% of the workforce, are more likely to change jobs than other generations, and that only half of them plan on being in the same job by next year. Some of the reasons employees give for wanting to leave their jobs include stress, burnout, and poor work-life balance. The 30-hour work week will help with all of those, meaning employees will be more willing to stay in their positions, rather than keeping their eyes peeled for new opportunities.
Employees know what they want, and they’re being more clear about it than ever. Now it’s up to companies and employers to listen to their employees, pay attention to the science, and start re-thinking the structure of the traditional 40 hour work week. It’ll benefit everyone in the long run. And think of all that time that can be spent innovating new ways to be productive in the workplace. If Francis Perkins can figure out the 40-hour work week, there’s no telling what we can come up with nearly a hundred years later.