Kevin Curran

It’s the sign on the door of almost every store: the hours doors are open and a reminder that the store is always open online.  With laptops in our bags and files in the cloud, it would seem knowledge workers no longer need to be tethered to their desks from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (or 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.).  Fairygodboss recently published an article titled “The 8-hour workday has no place in modern society.” 

But before you start thinking five o’clock whistles and time clocks are relics of Fred Flintstone’s day, you should consider what work hour rules mean and the debt modern society owes to those, like the railroad workers, who fought for them in a battle that continues today. While flexibility and creativity are important, the 40-hour work week exists for a reason.  

Yes, this is a knowledge economy, and most workers are now hired more for their brain than their brawn. But the brain of a knowledge worker needs a break just as much as the body of a manual laborer.  The “schedule creep” that has found its way into the American workplace may help managers and business owners to achieve goals, but it is harming workers physically and mentally.  Even if you don’t punch a timecard, there is a time to be on the clock and, more important, a time to be off the clock.

Many firms are looking for employees with an entrepreneurial spirit.  But there is a big difference between entrepreneurs, who are the beneficiaries of their labor, and workers. Being an entrepreneur means you are never off the clock.  When you are an employee, the beneficiary of your labor is your employer. The boss wants to get as much productivity out of you as possible for the least amount of money.  Wage and hour laws are one way to achieve a balance between the demands of employers and the needs of employees. 

I spent most of my career in the 24/7/365 world of broadcast journalism.  There is not a time of day or day of the year when I have not been at work.  But if I was working an overnight shift on Christmas, I was still working 40 hours per week with alternate days and times for celebrating the season and forgetting about the newsroom.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was employee #20 at Google, where she reported working up to 130 hours in a week: “If you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom.”  Most workers would balk at 130 hours, but a 2014 Gallup survey found the average work week reported was 47 hours, with 40% saying 50+ hours was typical.  It is not a joke that this amount of work can kill you: people who work more than 40 hours a week are 20% more likely to die prematurely. Even if you’re away from the physical office, the virtual office of a cellphone is still in your pocket.  A recent study found workers “became angry when they received a work email or text after they had gone home and that communication was negatively worded or required a lot of the person’s time.”

Workers need a life away from their work.  We need space for family, fun, and sleep — just some of the ingredients that make up our quality of life.  It’s been said that “no one complains on their deathbed that they wish they spent more time in the office.”

Today’s knowledge workers may be forgetting the labor versus management disagreements of days gone by and the improvements in our lives that came from those fights.  An increasing number of workers are not using all of their vacation and other paid time off.

While the employees’ attitudes may have changed, the employers’ have not, as illustrated by the fight against the expansion of employees covered by overtime rules. If those rules had been permitted to take effect, all employees making less than $47,476 would have been paid time and a half for all hours over 40.  The U.S. Department of Labor estimated that of the 4.2 million workers covered by the proposal, 2.3 million of them were women.  

Some employers are offering policies such as compressed workweeks and flexible scheduling that are excellent ideas, but they are still tied to the idea that people need to know when they are working — and when they are not.

What makes modern workers different?  They are aware that an 8-to-5 schedule is like putting a square peg in a round hole.  Each of us is creative, productive, and doing all those other things that earn a paycheck on our own schedule.  But that should not mean we are willing to devote more of our lives to work than work deserves.  Workers also need to make the time to spend those paychecks on vacation, get a good night’s sleep, and not be a stranger to those who matter most. The quality of work will not suffer, but the quality of life will markedly improve.


Kevin Curran is a faculty member at the University of North Texas – Dallas and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Oklahoma.  He has an MBA from Arizona State University.