Is the 40-Hour Work Week Obsolete?

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May 20, 2024 at 2:56AM UTC

Stripped of an office and the traditional commute, many white-collar workers started working from home and wondered: why the h*ll did I ever work so much?

With no more nosy coworkers peering over their shoulders, long commutes or in-office politics, these employees started to reimagine their relationship to work. 

In a New York Times Opinion essay titled, “The Future of Work Should Mean Working Less,” these workers made proclamations about everything they were “done with” now that they’d had a taste of what work could be like. They were done with everything from being “the last parent to pick up my child from school,” to someone who puts their work in front of their own mental health needs. 

All of the answers had one clear solution: minimizing the role work plays in their lives, by working less.

Of course, the shift to remote work at the start of the pandemic didn’t make everyone’s working lives easier. Some workers never got to try on a reduced workload and see how it fit their life. For some, working from home meant increased workloads and responsibilities; the blurred boundaries between personal and professional; more stress, exhaustion and burnout.

There were also the workers who never got to work from home. Essential and front-line workers often worked even more hours during the pandemic, putting their lives on the line while others enjoyed the safety of their home offices.

The workforce was and is still split. There were employees suddenly wondering why they’d spent years working 40-hours weeks, enjoying the freedom of a new work-from-home life. Then, there were employees who were overworked, logging hours that would leave them exhausted, burnt out and ready to quit. 

Although divided, the answer for both groups could be the same — working less.

Where does the 40-hour workweek come from?

The 40-hour workweek has become so ingrained in modern American culture that it’s hard to remember why so many of our lives are dictated by it at all. Is this scheduled optimized for productivity? What’s so special about working eight hours a day?

The history of the 40-hour workweek goes back to the early 19th century when the average American manufacturer was working 100 hours a week and fighting for reduced hours. It wasn’t until much later in the century that employers actually reduced working hours to eight hours a day — fueled by pressure from labor union groups, activists and workers.

The 40-hour workweek, therefore, isn’t optimized for productivity; instead, it’s a century-old solution for overwork and poor working conditions. So why are we so tied to it?

Can the 40-hour workweek actually become obsolete?

The data is telling: when workers work less, employees and employers benefit. Employers find a more productive, healthier workforce. Employees get more work done in less time, freeing up time for their personal lives and health.

In Iceland, a shorter workweek worked for employees and employers of multiple industries, according to a study with more than 1% of the country’s working population. Doctors, gardeners, street cleaners and office workers alike all tried out a four-day workweek. The shorter workweek worked for all of them.

At the end of the trial, employers learned that workers who worked longer hours weren’t necessarily getting extra work done during that time; instead, the schedule was hurting their productivity and morale. Employees learned that fewer hours gave them focus during the workday and a better quality of life outside of work.

Overhauling the 40-hour workweek requires large, structural change, one that asks us to change the culture of work and our relationship to it. But companies and countries on their own can and have made the change — and have seen successful results.

As workers enjoy more freedom working from home, and other employees feel burnout by the demands of their current schedule, time may be running out on the traditional 40-hour workweek. It’s still unclear whether the 40-hour workweek is actually on the chopping block anytime soon, yet the new work landscape is making employees and employers question their hours and what really matters at work. What’s the true way to measure success at work: the number of hours someone works, or the work that gets done?

Do you think the 40-hour workweek is obsolete? Share your answer below and read what other Fairygodboss’ers have to say!


This article does not reflect the views of Fairygodboss.

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