#7 The 40-hour week, and why it’s not good for you

My dad's allotment, where he spends more time than he should.

My dad's allotment, where he spends more time than he should.

One of the questions that arises very often when talking about work and volunteering is the question of time. No-one has enough of it. But it’s still taken for granted that we should spend 40+/- hours a week on our main job. When you dare to work less, it's called 'part-time'. 

I don’t think anyone would say that anyone can work at their optimal productivity for 8 hours a day. I think the general consensus is that you can produce maybe 4 or 5 hours of good work. But our productivity is not tracked, our attendance is.

We’re now – strangely, still – at a crossroads regarding work. Many modern, creative, innovative companies still hire people to work for them for 40 hours a week, although this working model is firmly rooted in an industrial production method. So why do we do this? 

Mikael Cho from Crew has written an excellent blog post on the backgrounds to the working week, and why we should rethink it. I fully endorse his conclusions. Please read the blog post – it’s well worth it.

The 40-hour week is an industrial phenomenon. So why do we hang on to it in a post-industrial society?

An employer might say that she cannot trust her staff to get more done in the shorter time. Then she has the wrong staff, and a trust problem, not a time problem.

I know families where the parents struggle to get their kids to school in the morning, and then in to work on time, then get out of work on time to get their kids, and still have problems getting the right number of hours done. What kind of family-unfriendly companies are they working for? 

My argument is very simple: I believe that we did not evolve to work a 40 hour week. That’s just something that the industrial society produced. I also think we’re not mono-thematic and can work better if we introduce more variety and change into our working week. 

I have no argument about the total amount of work a worker produces, but I believe we can be more creative and productive if we do not spend all of our work energy on one goal. Doing so creates a kind of tunnel vision and drags along with it a whole bunch of biased behaviour attitudes.

I think you should get out more.   

Update 5 Nov: 

The quite brilliant Johannes Stühler tweeted this excellent article from the New Yorker: No Time, by Elizabeth Kolbert, which covers the same subject from a different angle.