Do We Really Need the 40 Hour Work Week?

Andrew Buck's avatar Andrew Buck December 20, 2022

Most professionals today work a standard 40 hour work week. This generally runs from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm. We’re all familiar with this, and most of us take it as a given that these are the hours we’re expected to work.

But is this the best way of doing things? Do we work a 40 hour work week because it’s effective, or simply because it’s the way we’ve always done things?

That’s what we’re going to look at in this post. We’ll look back on why the 40 hour work week exists, if it still makes sense today, and alternative options if not.

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When and Why Was the 40 Hour Work Week Established?

The establishment of the 40 hour work week is largely attributed to Henry Ford and the Ford Motor Company.

In September 1926, Ford announced that his company would institute a five day work week, with eight hours per day – the 40 hour work week as we know it today.

This would become standard in the US in the 1940s, with amendments to the Fair Labor Standards Act. First, in 1938, limiting work weeks to 44 hours or 8.8 hours per day. Then in 1940 it was amended further, to 40 hours per week.

These changes came on the back of the industrial revolution. It was common in the 1800s for people to work 12-14 hours per day, and as much as 80-100 hours per week.

Various unions pushed for lesser working hours in the 19th century. The National Labor Union petitioned congress to mandate an eight hour workday in 1869. In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant made the eight hour workday standard for government employees, and in 1886, Illinois passed an eight hour workday law.

These movements to limit working hours were made to protect workers, who were often worked to the point of exhaustion. With the introduction of more machinery in the production process, there was less need for labor. Thus, it became possible to cut back without significant cutbacks on production.

When Ford moved to a 40 hour work week he did so because he found that any hours above this point gave only a small increase in productivity.

That’s where the sweet spot of 40 hours per week was born.

Is the 40 Hour Work Week Effective?

The 40 hour work week is certainly better than working as much as 100 hours per week, as we have in the past. But whether we still need to work for 40 hours per week is up for debate.

Remember that the work week was shortened to 40 hours due to the introduction of industrial machinery. This increased the amount and speed of the production process, lessening the reliance on human labor.

One could argue that the world has seen similar advancements in the last 100 years, with the now ubiquitous use of computers in the workplace (as well as further advancement in industrial technology).

But is 40 hours still the sweet spot?

Studies show that working more than this is actively detrimental to our health. This amount of work often results in lower productivity and increased mistakes.

But there’s certainly a question whether the work week should be shorter than this. We can get more done in less time with today’s technology (and this may increase further with the rise of AI).

And in addition, data shows that the most productive nations are those that work fewer hours on average.

Of the top 10 countries by GDP per average hours worked per week, seven have an average of under 30 hours per week. As we go down the list, the average hours worked per week increases.

This gives way to the idea that 40 hours per week might not be the optimal work week anymore.

Read More: how to spot Overworked Employees, and what to do to stop them from burning out.

Alternative Work Schedules

If not the standard 9-5 40 hour work week, what else?

Here are some other ways we can consider crafting our work schedule today.

Flex time

A “flex time” work schedule is an alternative schedule that differs from the status quo of 9-5, Monday to Friday.

Generally, a flextime schedule will still be 40 hours per week. However, it allows for more flexibility in when someone works these 40 hours.

For example, instead of starting at nine and ending at five, someone might work from 12-8. Or, they might take an extended break in the middle of the day, starting at eight and finishing at seven (while still clocking just eight working hours).

Why Flextime Works

Not everyone is at their most productive between the hours of nine and five. Some people might be more productive at night, or early in the morning.

Flex time allows people to work when they work best. It also lets them fit other interests or priorities into their day, and maintain a positive work-life balance.

Four Day Work Week

The four day work week is fast rising alternative work schedule today. You cut one day from the standard work week, for four days of eight hours, and 32 total working hours.

For salaried employees, you still get paid the same amount, only with one less working day.

Several large companies have moved towards a four day week, and there was also a large-scale trial of it in Iceland, with encouraging results.

Why a Four Day Work Week Works

With one less working day, this variation provides better work-life balance, and protects against overwork and burnout. This should result in happier, healthier employees, and related benefits for the company (lower turnover, less absenteeism, increased productivity).

But the big reason it may work is because of something called Parkinson’s Law. This idea states that the amount of work expands to fit the time available for its completion.

In simple terms, this would mean that we’ll produce the same amount of work in four days as we would in five. Having an extra day to finish our work just means that we take longer to do it, or expand our work with additional tasks or details that are not necessary.

Thus a four day work week may result in no less productivity than a five day week, but with much more time allowed for employees’ personal lives.

9/80 Work Schedule

A 9/80 work schedule is a compressed work week, reducing the number of days worked while keeping the same number of total work hours.

Instead of five days, 40 hours per week, this type of schedule runs over two weeks, with a total of nine working days for 80 hours per week.

Every week, employees work four nine hour days. Every second week, they’ll work a fifth day, one eight hour day.

The extra hours on four out of five days each week allows for an additional day off (usually every second Friday).

Why a 9/80 Schedule Works

A 9/80 schedule maintains the same number of working hours, yet theoretically gives the employee more time for their personal life. Despite keeping the same total number of hours, less commute time works out in the employee’s favor, so it feels like more time off even though the hours stay the same.

No Fixed Schedule

Another alternative is simply to do away with working schedules altogether. Remove any requirement for someone to work a specific number of hours per week or day.

Instead, the employee has certain tasks they need to complete or productivity benchmarks they need to hit. As long as they meet their requirements, it doesn’t matter if they work 40 hours or 10 hours.

Why No Fixed Schedule Works

Removing the work schedule altogether removes the idea that someone’s presence correlates to their productivity. It puts the focus squarely on what a person actually produces, and rewards those who do their job more efficiently with more time to themselves.

This is a stark improvement on a big problem in traditional office environments, where employees who complete their work faster are usually only rewarded with more work to do, disincentivizing productivity.

Read More: all you need to know about the benefits of Flexible Working Schedules.

Summing Up: Should We Stick to the 40 Hour Work Week?

Evidence doesn’t necessarily show that the 40 hour work week is the wrong way of doing things.

But it’s also hard to say, definitively, that 40 hours is definitely the optimal way to structure the work week.

It’s a relic from over 100 years ago. And it has not been adjusted with the huge improvements in how technology aids productivity.

We can get far more done in much less time than Henry Ford was capable of in his company in 1926.

That may mean that the optimal way of doing things now is shorter working hours, and more time for people to devote to their personal lives.

With technology doing the leg work for us, humans’ roles have become more cerebral, as opposed to physical, which means we can benefit from being happy and maintaining mental health, as a result of more personal time away from work.

This is just a hypothesis. But the number of large companies trying out alternative schedules speaks to its validity.

We can also achieve a similar result, while maintaining the structure of the 40 hour work week, by being generous and/or flexible with paid time off.

A lot of businesses today see this as a long-term plus in productivity, instituting policies such as unlimited PTO and mandatory vacation.

If you’re doing the same in your business, or thinking of it, Flamingo is the tool you need to help keep track of your team’s PTO days. It ensures you can offer more PTO without disrupting productivity.

Increased PTO and alternative work schedules both help businesses keep their most important resource – their employees – happy, healthy, productive, and committed to producing their best work for the company.

Andrew Buck's avatar

Andrew Buck

Andrew is the content manager at Flamingo. He has managed teams in multiple industries, for both physical and remote businesses, and has experience dealing with the ins and outs of HR and leave management on a daily basis.

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