The 40-hour work week is outdated, history and modern solutions

September 28, 2017


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Employment is like any type of transaction. An individual has something to sell, in this case time, to someone who needs or wants it.

The value depends on multiple facts, although, according to economic principles, both parties naturally want to benefit as much as possible from investing as little as possible. For example, an employee will aspire to be paid as much as possible for doing the least amount of work possible and vice versa for employers.

While this might seem like a functional process on paper, it is actually far more complicated in the real world. This is quite simply due to the fact that humans are not objects who are able to produce objective results as easily as a TV or dishwasher over a set period of time.

Instead, we are intricate beings which can produce varied amounts of work depending on a prodigious list of factors. Thus, the output of 12 hours of work is not necessarily going to be double the output of six hours, despite what economists may hope. This brings to light a challenge which employees and employers have been battling out since the dawn of employment, how many hours should we work a week?


In 1890, the US government started tracking workers’ hours. The average workweek for full-time manufacturing employees was a staggering 100 hours, which in this day and age would be considered borderline slavery. As time progressed, so did the work lives of employees with incremental advances towards better, more feasible working hours.

One of the greatest steps forward was Ford Motor Company’s adoption of a five day, 40-hour work week in 1926, the familiar standard which many companies currently use. However, in recent years this idea of a 40-hour work week has been frequently criticized by many researchers and governments who question its benefits compared to shorter, more productive alternatives.

Moving forward

In light of new evidence, we might be able to achieve the same level of work in three hours, two hours and 53 minutes to be precise, instead of the usual eight-hour workday. According to a 2016 survey of 1,989 UK office workers, the rest of our time is spent reading the news, browsing social media, eating food, socializing about non-work topics, taking smoke breaks, and searching for new jobs.

“If you’re pushing people well beyond that time they can really concentrate maximally, you’re very likely to get them to acquire some bad habits,” explains K. Anders Ericsson, an expert on the psychology of work. Ericsson argues that experts who perform the best don’t spend hours and hours focusing on their skill. Instead, they spend a few hours in one go concentrating on improvement, and then they stop.

The Swedish experiment

In Sweden, a two-year experiment was carried out in Gothenburg, the home of Volvo, to see if more, or at least an equal amount, of work could be achieved from a shorter working day. The working day was taken down to six hours for 68 nurses at the Svartedalen old people’s home while maintaining the same salary level. The results showed that the same employees felt healthier, resulting in reduced sick leave absence and increased patient care.

However, the city was not able to implement the plan because of cost implications. Due to the reduced hours, 17 new members of staff were hired to compensate for the reduced number of hours covered by the original workforce. “It is associated with higher costs, absolutely,” said Daniel Bernmar, a local Left-wing politician in charge of running the municipality’s elderly care. “It’s far too expensive to carry out a general shortening of working hours within a reasonable time frame.”

We may not have a perfect timetable in place, but the fact that we are still operating on a system which was introduced into the US workforce in 1926 highlights how outdated it is and its need for change. The focus should not be on hours achieved but output overall, therefore staff can be encouraged to produce outcomes opposed to hours of work. As we see modern workforces becoming more mobile we are likely to see a shift in this direction, allowing employees to browse through the news or make breakfast in the comfort of their own home while maintaining the same level of work.


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