So apparently the 40-hour work week isn’t just soul-eating, it’s literally bad for business



John likes what he does. He wakes up at six daily, takes a shower, shaves, puts on his suit, and if it’s a Monday, he might shine his shoes before he leaves the house. John doesn’t have a worry in the world. He has an easy-going boss, has a superb credit score, and his sex life is fantastic—he’s inarguably happy.

Sometimes, John gets bored. When he does, he escapes for a while with a weekend trip or a visit to the pub. Right now, he’s counting down the days until he leaves for his vacation in Hawaii. Often he finds that his mind takes on strange trains of thought, like wondering whether that lump on his knee is cancer or if he should start worrying about writing his will, but he snaps out of it quickly enough to focus on other things.

At first glance, John seems like your average Joe. But does slaving away eight hours a day really constitute a “normal” lifestyle and benefit John’s productivity and wellbeing?

During the industrial revolution, factory workers were being exploited by their 14-16 hour workdays and the 8-hour workday came into being as a way to regulate labour. As technology advanced, workers were able to produce more in shorter amounts of time, but this advancement didn’t change the amount of hours in the regular workday.

The 8-hour workday’s origins are also strategic: in the late 18th century, factories began maximizing their output and getting them to run 24/7 was key. The 8-hour shift allowed for an even distribution of hours throughout the day broken into three categories; work, recreation, and sleep.

But according to a recent Gallup Poll documenting the average work hours of a U.S. worker, 50 per cent worked more than 40 hours a week. Eighteen percent of that figure works more that 60 hours a week, Twenty-one percent working between 50 and 69 hours.

Because free time is scarce, we spend our hard earned money on cheap entertainment and convenient gratification. There’s little room for personal development like traveling, reading or exercise when you’re working to build someone else’s dream. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says there is only 20 per cent of full time workers that take part in some sort of physical exercise.

A second study referred to by The Atlantic suggests that most Americans, when temporarily freed from the leash of the workforce tend to fill their time with television, browsing the Internet, and sleep. This lifestyle fuels Western economies while at the same time priming the purchase-happy consumer.

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Photocred: Elisabeth Caren/©Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection

The simple answer to this conundrum of purpose is to work fewer hours. But in today’s workforce with the mandate of securing the most collective work possible the reality seems as though employers are not going to pay the same salary for reduced productivity.

After all, the 8-hour workday is succeeding in doing exactly what it has been designed to do; compartmentalize our life to maximize efficiency. But is it really?

Studies show that in a normal 8-hour shift, employees only get three hours of real work done. So why has the 8-hour workday survived the hands of time? David Cain, the brain behind, suggests that such a workplace culture exists to perpetuate a “culture of unnecessaries.”

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According to Cain, the 8-hour workday might have a two-fold motive. By limiting personal development opportunities, it can make humans indulge during their free time, thus supplying the market with the necessary demand to match an excessive supply. After all, the major fear following the rise of the second industrial revolution was not underproduction, it was overproduction.

The amount of personal satisfaction with which we spend our minutes affects the overall quality of our lives. According to Gallup’s study, only 29% of the workforce is engaged with their work, by their definition, “psychologically committed to their jobs and likely to be making positive contributions to their organizations.” This is because people biologically run on different clocks. It’s called a circadian rhythm and this is why some people are naturally more efficient in the morning and some at night.

The 40-hour work week has also been linked to increasing distraction and decreasing creativity. Employees are subject to burning out due to mental fatigue based on repetition or mental fatigue based on exhaustion.

The 9-5 not only promotes consumption as a sort of gratification Band-Aid, the schedule itself is also consuming itself.

Realizing that the productivity of individual employees is hard to measure by looking at a general percentage on a quarterly report, some forward-thinking entrepreneurs are taking it upon themselves to ditch the traditional macro-measurement of total output. Instead, they are taking a look at the individual productivity and thus examining the overall happiness of the worker.

The 85 employees of Treehouse only work 32-hours a week. Their salaries easily compete with 40-hour week workers. Their idea is simple; it’s not about the quantity of time—it’s about the quality of time. Life satisfaction equals deeper engagement equals increased productivity.

As Treehouse’s CEO, Ryan Carson puts it, “You get all day Friday off, instead of pretending like you’re working when you’re not…just remember, you only have 2,000 weekends, and then you die.”