Bringing Back the 40 Hour Work Week

Woolworth female employees striking for a 40-hour work week, 1937

While the worldwide economy is starting to recover from the recession, for workers it’s a different story. Job security issues, high competition for available jobs and the decreasing average income help fuel the trend of workers putting 50 or more hours at work every week .

And so workplace stress has escalated progressively over the past few years, numerous studies show.

This in turn leads to less productivity in the workplace.

What if businesses stick to the 40 hour work week, and in doing so reduce stress and maximize employee productivity?

Rising rates of stressed workers

Worldwide stress levels among workers are rising, according to a recent global survey involving 11,000 companies across 15 countries. The survey, commissioned by The Regus Group, found that on average 58% of workers in all 15 countries reported an increase in stress over the last two years.

The Regus Group also reported that increased focus on profitability has been the most responsible for aggravating workplace stress, with 39% of workers identifying it as the primary contributor. The threat of job loss was the second most significant stress inducer; with larger companies showing greater increase in workplace stress compared to small businesses.

The Regus Group CEO Guillermo Rotman said:
“While many countries have announced that technically the recession is over, a number of experts believe that recovery will likely not make significant progress for at least another 6-12 months.

“Stress in the workforce can provide companies with significant challenges: management and work productivity can be seriously impaired, motivation levels may be damaged, and conflict between colleagues can undermine professionalism. With any of these factors in play, companies will likely see an impact to bottom-line commercial and financial results.”

Employees have been working more hours yet earning less

Over the last 30 years 86% of men and 67% of women in the U.S. have been working longer hours. Compared in the 1970s, these people worked an average of 11 hours more per week, and yet earn less than what they would three decades ago.

For example, the average income for a 35-hour work week in 1970 was $59,000. In 2012, the average income for a 46-hour work week is $51, 000. With high competition levels for existing jobs and the impeding threat of job loss, employers can demand longer hours at significantly less pay. Workers won’t complain because there are plenty of individuals that will be happy to take their job and do it for even less pay. The “available” labor pool is causing a significant downward pressure to existing wages.

Rising trend: workers earning less yet spending more hours at work

Wages in a downward slide while hours worked rising
Source: The Real Employment Situation

Work stress leads to employee “Presenteeism”

A survey of nearly 2,000 employees conducted during September 2012 revealed that many employees consider simply showing up for work to be more important than their performance on the job (an indicator of high stress). Presenteeism—or just being present is up 3 points from 2011 to 22%.

Dr. Richard A. Chaifetz, Chairman and CEO of ComPsych–the firm who commissioned the research, said:

“As employers continue to take a wait-and-see approach when it comes to hiring, people who currently have jobs – many of whom have taken on extra work – are starting to show signs of prolonged stress. This can result in burnout and reduced performance.”

Employers should communicate clearly to workers about staffing expectations, and should support employees with resources to reduce stress and balance work-life issues”

So if people wish they worked less, why don’t they do so? Many feel, with some justification, that a 40-hour week would be career suicide. Elite professionals often face a situation where excellence and commitment are measured not only by productivity and competence but by the number of hours logged into work.

Working longer hours will never increase productivity

Traditionally, the number of hours worked has been equated with productivity. Now, numerous studies have proven that long-term productivity is maximized at a five-day, 40 hour work week. Beyond that, productivity will continuously taper off until work done is the same as what would have been done in a 40-hour week.

The reason—working long hours can lead to stress and burnout. Long term work stress leads to an overall decline in work performance and productivity. Work done during these stress periods will result to poor output that usually needs to be scrapped or redone.

Graphing productivity and overtime

It is possible for productivity to be negative
when additional work is required to fix defects

Source: Rules of Productivity

Evan Robinson, in his very insightful blog post, said:

In the short term, working over 21 hours continuously is equivalent to being legally drunk. Longer periods of continuous work drastically reduce cognitive function and increase the chance of catastrophic error. In both the short- and long-term, reducing sleep hours as little as one hour nightly can result in a severe decrease in cognitive ability, sometimes without workers perceiving the decrease.

A more realistic method of increasing productivity would be to make sure workers are well rested and a productivity monitoring system in place—a good manager or a productivity monitoring software—to ensure workers are performing their tasks as expected of them.

Ford doubles pay, adopts five-day, 40-hour week

Lesson from Henry Ford

In January 1914, Henry Ford had a transformative idea. He startled the world by announcing that Ford Motor Company would pay $5 a day to its workers, accompanied by a shorter workday (from 9 to 8 hours), essentially making it a 40-hour work week. The news sent shockwaves through the auto industry and many businessmen regarded the move as crazy.

But Ford believed that a stressed-free workplace would increase productivity and he was right. By creating an eight-hour day, Ford was able to run three shifts (instead of two), retain skilled, satisfied workers and increased productivity.

That year, 13,000 workers at Ford made 260,720 cars. By comparison, elsewhere in the automobile industry it took 66,350 workers to make 286,770 cars.


About the Author:


Cloyd Waldo works at, an online job marketplace and Time Doctor, a time tracking and productivity monitoring software designed to help reduce wasted time at work.

He has been telecommuting for work since 2008 and just loves Mocha Frappuccino.

Find me on Google+


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