Here’s How Doing Away with the 40-hour Workweek Benefits Our Health

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When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many people with office jobs worked remotely for the first time. Now, telework — or hybrid work models, which see employees splitting their time between the office and home — are the (new) norm. At first, the shift to remote work might’ve felt strange, but, as time has gone on, many workers have discovered some unexpected work-from-home benefits, namely that this kind of work schedule is a bit more flexible and convenient. 

Despite the ongoing vaccine rollout, many Americans want the work-from-home option to stick around. Even more exciting? This move to remote work has opened up other conversations surrounding what’s best for workers and their career/personal life balances. For example, some employees are imploring their companies to not only develop better telework policies but more robust time-off and vacation policies as well. 

Workers and labor activists alike are considering even larger, more sweeping changes. That is, this newfound need for flexibility has many wondering if it’s time to rethink the 40-hour workweek. Is it time to cut down on working hours across the board? Here, we’ll discuss how shifting away from the stringent, long-standing 40-hour workweek can impact our health — both physical and mental — for the better. 

The 40-Hour Workweek Used to Be a Lot Longer

Interestingly, in the United States, the workweek was once much longer than the standard 40 hours we know now. Amid the Industrial Revolution, workers were used to clocking 80–100 hours a week, but, in 1817, labor unions and activists pushed to change that. After all, life isn’t all about work — and working that much was simply unsustainable and unhealthy. 

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It took decades of efforts, ranging from strikes to protests, but, eventually, eight-hour workdays were put in place for government workers in 1869. Seeing this success, private-sector workers and unions pushed for the same, though many of those employers didn’t adopt the eight-hour workday until the mid-1920s. In 1940, the 40-hour workweek became law in the U.S., marking a huge improvement for workers across the board. However, times have changed and, now, many are beginning to find that even 40 hours might be a little too taxing. 

A Shorter Workweek Could Improve Mental Health

Although Americans have grown accustomed to 40-hour workweeks, there are certainly several benefits to having an even shorter workweek. After all, individuals are more than just employees; everyone has personal lives and hobbies, too, and committing too much of your energy to work can take a toll on your emotional and mental health. 

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If we could work fewer hours a day — or have another full day off — there would be more room for a work-life balance. Instead of cramming errands, appointments, and social engagements into just two days (or in the spaces between meetings), we could plan less stringently and avoid that feeling of racing from one thing to the next. 

In turn, we’d feel more refreshed and more well-rested. By building in time off, employees might be less likely to call out sick for their mental health or take an unexpected day off to accommodate appointments. And, in the wake of the pandemic, that flexibility sounds better than ever to folks who are reassessing what matters to them. 

Cutting Hours on the Clock Could Help Productivity Levels

Just because an employee is on the clock for eight hours, it doesn’t mean they’re working productively the entire time. If you work eight hours a day, you’re probably well aware of this fact. Sometimes, your time gets interrupted by attending meetings, communicating with coworkers, and answering emails or phone calls. Once you’re interrupted, it can take a while to get back on track. All of this to say, many of us are only working at our most productively for four to six hours a day — not the full eight. 

Trying to attend Zoom meetings while doing other work? Well, the stress of a 40-hour workweek forces many of us to multitask — perhaps to an unhealthy level. Just because you’re juggling several tasks at once, that doesn’t mean you’re checking them all (if any) off your list, nor are you giving anything your full attention. This can spill over into folks having bad boundaries when it comes to closing their laptops and stepping away from their desks at the end of a stop-and-go workday. Some of that difficulty with work boundaries comes from feeling “guilty” about not achieving enough — so, why not take some of the pressure off? 

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These days, some companies in the U.S. are experimenting with 32-hour workweeks. Others are rearranging work schedules to provide employees with three days off. For example, Natalie Nagele, co-founder and CEO of Philadelphia-based software company Wildbit, moved the company to a four-day week in 2017. So far, the shift has proven very successful. 

“We had shipped more features than we had in recent years. We felt more productive [and] the quality of our work increased. So then we just kept going with it,” Nagele shared with NPR. Having that shorter workweek allowed her and her team to really rest — and, as an added bonus, it doesn’t force them to stick around and solve work problems when they should be clocking off. “You can ask my team: there are multiple times where somebody is like, ‘On Sunday morning, I woke up and… I figured it out,” she stated.

Long Work Hours Can Be Detrimental to Physical Health as Well

A study by the Australian National University published in the Social Science & Medicine showed that long hours not only impact employees’ mental health but their physical health as well. Dr. Huong Dinh, the lead researcher on the project, shared that, “long work hours erode a person’s mental and physical health because it leaves less time to eat and look after themselves properly.”

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Other consequences of long hours include poor eating habits and less sleep. Those two habits alone can lead to serious health problems over time, from decreased cognitive function to weight gain. Instituting a shorter workweek could help employees focus more on taking better care of themselves. After all, it’s often that self-care that we cut from our schedules first when we’re too busy or stressed. 

Other Countries Have Fewer Working Hours and Still Boast Success

Outside of the handful of companies in the U.S. that are forging ahead with shorter work weeks, other countries have seen their populations benefit immensely from working fewer hours. For example, in The Netherlands employees work an average of 27.5 hours per week; the country boasts high incomes and a low level of unemployment, and the government actively supports both professional and personal growth.

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New Zealand workers are on the clock for four days each week, but they still receive five days’ worth of pay. Even before the pandemic, the country’s government encouraged flexible working arrangements and shorter workweeks. Even with fewer working hours, employees still have the same level of productivity — but there’s the added bonus of less stress and greater workplace satisfaction. Moreover, in recent years, organizations based in Sweden started to experiment with a six-hour working day to keep employees happy and increase productivity. Subsequent research found that employees were still able to complete their duties, and were better off emotionally, mentally and physically.  In the UK, three companies – Hutch, MBL Seminars, and Yo Telecom – will initiate a six-month-long four-day workweek trial this June.

Though other logistics come into play, companies may want to consider shortening their work weeks in the near future. At the very least, there may need to be more flexibility, be it allowing for remote work, hybrid schedules or more time off. All of this to say, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced employees to rethink what’s important to them — and, finally, they are starting to choose their health over their jobs. 

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  • “Enjoy The Extra Day Off! More Bosses Give 4-Day Workweek A Try” via NPR
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  • “The Future of Work: How working 40 hours a week is killing your mental health” via Ladders
  • “Work-Life Balance — The Netherlands” via Business Culture
  • “A 4-Day Workweek for 5 Days’ Pay? Unilever New Zealand Is the Latest to Try” via The New York Times
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