Work days are very typical: show up in the office sometime between 7 and 9, and leave about eight hours later. Monday through Friday, day in and day out, with the weekends giving you a chance to recharge your mental batteries. Working overtime seems to be encouraged by many companies. Dedicated employees might put in 20, 30, to even 40 more hours than usual per week, and some employees might even work 12 to 24 hour days. It seems favorable for businesses to have such dedicated and hard working employees, but at what cost?
As office culture has changed over the years, very little has happened to actually change the office schedule. Some employers and lawmakers have realized that overworking can be dangerous (even deadly in certain circumstances), and many have placed a greater emphasis on finding a solid work-life balance for employees. Laws have been passed that require vacation time, that help define employment contracts for full time workers, and other regulations — but other than that, not much has changed with the typical 9-to-5 schedule.
However, when some offices started rethinking their office culture, they also started rethinking the typical schedule. Technology allows workers to get more done in less amount of time, so what harm is it to give three day weekends? Or perhaps reduce the hours in the office from eight to six? As long as workers were being paid the same amount to do the work, one could argue that it’s reasonable to give them more time to be themselves.
While some might have scoffed at this idea — presuming the office would be less efficient or less productive — it turns out this was actually a very valuable proposition.
The Modern Day Worker
If you sit back and think about your typical work day, about how much time do you actually spend working? Do you find yourself being productive in short spurts, taking regular breaks, or simply sitting at your desk or cubicle and stressing about your next project? Answered ‘yes’ to any of these? You’re not alone.
In fact, most workers can only spend about two to four hours working per day, according to numerous researchers. That means the other six to four hours is spent simply stressing, checking emails, nodding off, or surfing the web.
But when you really get to the bottom of it, our human lack of ability to sit at a desk for eight hours and “work” is very understandable. When we show up at the office, we’re not practicing our old hunter-gatherer ways. We’re simply sitting for extended periods and trying to work on mundane puzzles or tasks. For some, you may even be working more than you’re sleeping — and which do you think is better for your body? It’s no wonder we can only devote so much brain power to something we aren’t necessarily designed to do for extended periods of time (let alone 40 hours of every week).
But there’s other reasons to be concerned about our work habits. For one, all that stress can have a serious negative effect on the body. Long-term stress and burnout can manifest into physical symptoms: anything from an increased risk of heart disease to digestive issues. Additionally, all that sitting is extremely bad for our health; which is why it’s so important to get up and take walks throughout your day. It’s even (unfortunately) common for devoted workers to die from “overworking” in some industrialized nations — Japan has a unique word for the occurrence: karoshi.
Elena Kerrigan, the Managing Director here at Think Productive, made a great point about our current, unhealthy work habits:
“I believe future generations looking back will struggle to understand how we accepted this permanent state of stress and information overload, long hours and ridiculous expectations, with little or no regard for people’s health, wellbeing or happiness.”
Shorter Days Equal More Productive Employees
Although some might argue that eight hour work days give employees the opportunity to get more things done throughout the day, the opposite might actually be true. According to numerous studies, working less hours per day actually results in more productive workers. How does that work, you ask?
Ohio University put together an infographic that covers a few of the most convincing studies on shorter work days. For example, in Sweden, nurses who switched to six hour shifts — instead of the traditional eight hour shifts — were not only happier and less likely to call out sick, but on average they were about 64 percent more productive. Their patients also reported an improvement in care. Additionally, in the UK, six out of ten bosses reported seeing an increase in productivity when hours (but not pay) were cut.
There are also studies that have looked at the effectiveness of four day work weeks with three day weekends. The BBC interviewed two UK businesses that made the transition into a four day work week: Normally Design and Pursuit Marketing. Employees with Normally Design noted that eight hour work days mixed with the extended weekend gave them a chance to really unwind, and they felt more productive while working less hours. At Pursuit Marketing, executives noted that the decrease in work days led to an increase in productivity — about a 30 percent increase after making the transition. Both companies have also noted a serious decrease in turnover rates, and are retaining more employees due to the improved environment.
As the Guardian notes on the issue of overworking, the problem isn’t the work itself, but the amount of time we spend trying to do it. The author, Peter Fleming, explains: “In order to make jobs more conducive to our mental and physiological welfare, much less work is definitely essential.”
It also comes down to an individual’s perception of time, and our ability to feel less overwhelmed when we have less on our metaphorical plate. As one professor, Dr. Tejinder Billings, explained for Medical News Today:
“When an individual’s workload exceeds the optimal level that he or she is comfortable with on a daily basis in the work situation, then psychological strain is the likely outcome.”
Better Balancing Our Lives
In essence, less hours means employees have more time to relax when clocked out, less stress and burnout, and thus have more energy to devote to work and are better able to manage their time. Essentially, this important shift in one’s work-life balance could create more focused and productive employees. Our brains can really only do so much, so why not encourage breaks, rest, and time off?
However, the trick in switching to shorter work days or work weeks is fighting the long-embedded culture that has sustained our industrialized world for over a century. Instead of managers rewarding people who work over-time, they should take the time to question them. Did they really need to answer that email over the weekend? Could that call have waited until the office was open again on Monday? Would time management training help them use their time in the office more effectively and therefore avoid the feeling of “always having to be online”?
Additionally, managers and industry leaders should take more breaks, and encourage others to do the same. It can be as simple as taking a true lunch break, or blocking out a part of their day to be more active. Managers could also encourage mental health days, extended weekends, and true vacations — essentially, they could encourage and prioritize taking care of yourself.
There’s a strong case for shorter work days, but also a large cultural hurdle in the way. Will you be able to help make a difference? Start taking more time to yourself, and you might find that your output will improve.
By Katie McBeth
Katie is a freelance writer out of Boise, ID. She enjoys reading teen novels, eating mac ‘n cheese, and attending indie concerts in small bars. Her love for reading is only trumped by her love for cats, of which she has three. She also has a dog, and he helps keep her grounded. You can follow her animal and writing adventures on Instagram or Twitter: @ktmcbeth
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Following a heart attack – brought on by chronic and mostly work-related stress – late last year, I’ve been discussing the possibility of reducing my work time from 5 days to 4 per week, but unfortunately the only way my company will do that is by my taking a pro-rata pay cut as well. Since that doesn’t work for me from a financial perspective, I’ll just have to soldier on. The danger is that we are collectively sleepwalking into a major health crisis as demands on the workforce keep increasing without a lot of employers really engaging with their employees’ need for rest and recuperation.