In 1926, Ford Motor Company became one of the first companies in the United States to implement the 40-hour workweek, a policy that would benefit the labor movement for decades to come. In a New York Times article years earlier, Edsel Ford, the son of company founder Henry Ford, said, “Every man needs more than one day a week for rest and recreation . . . We believe that in order to live properly, every man should have more time to spend with his family.”
While the Fords spoke publicly in favor of allowing leisure time for workers who were putting in 10- to 12-hour days during a manufacturing boom, they also moved to a five-day workweek to increase productivity in their automotive factories. Workers were expected to expend more effort during their shortened workweek, and they did just that. To boot, they spent their extra day off contributing to the economy, spending their earnings on leisure activities and shopping.
Shortly after Ford’s policy changes, manufacturers throughout the U.S. followed suit and the Monday-to-Friday workweek became the new standard. Today, almost 100 years later, American workers are struggling to maintain a healthy work-life balance and many are asking for another policy shift, reducing the amount of hours worked even further. According to a report by the National Bureau of Economic Research, since 2019, Americans are voluntarily working less hours, and this decline is expected to persist.
For the majority of working adults, hustle culture has lost its appeal. Maintaining a healthy work-life balance that allows for productive blocks of time and freedom of personal time is not only ideal, but expected.
In this article, learn about why the 40-hour workweek was implemented, the pros and cons of that schedule, and how to maintain a work-life balance.
- The 40-hour workweek began as a response to workers’ demands for improved conditions and better work-life balance during the Industrial Revolution.
- Compared to the 10- to 12-hour days worked in the early 20th century, the standard 40-hour workweek implemented under the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 allows for better working conditions, improved mental and physical health, and more personal time.
- While working 40 hours a week was considered a blessing after the Great Depression, many modern American adults advocate for even more personal time, promising to remain equally productive during workdays.
History of the 40-Hour Workweek
The 40-hour workweek began as a response to the demands of workers for improved conditions, better work-life balance, and the recognition that excessive working hours during the Industrial Revolution were detrimental to both employees and productivity.
Here are some key reasons why the 40-hour workweek came into existence:
- Industrial Revolution: The rise of industrialization in the 19th century led to long and grueling work hours, often exceeding 60 or more hours per week. This sparked widespread discontent among workers, leading to demands for shorter hours and improved work-life balance.
- Health and Safety Concerns: Prolonged working hours took a toll on workers’ physical and mental health. Work days typically lasted 10–12 hours, and working conditions were often unsafe, leading to deadly accidents. As awareness grew regarding the negative impact of excessive work hours on overall well-being, the need for a standardized and shorter workweek gained momentum.
- Labor Movement: During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, labor unions and workers’ rights advocates, such as the American Federation of Labor and Industrial Workers of the World, fought for better conditions and fair treatment in the workplace. One of their central demands was a reduction in working hours to improve workers’ quality of life.
- Productivity and Efficiency: Experiments conducted during the early 20th century, such as policy changes by Ford Motor Company, revealed that reducing work hours and implementing standardized schedules led to increased productivity and efficiency. This finding supported the argument for a shorter workweek.
- Ford Motor Company: In 1914, Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company, implemented the 40-hour workweek for his employees, reducing the standard from 48 hours. This decision substantially impacted labor practices and influenced other industries to consider similar changes.
- Legislative Action: The push for shorter working hours gained legislative attention in various countries. In the United States, for instance, the Adamson Act of 1916 established an eight-hour workday and a 40-hour workweek for railroad workers, setting a precedent for other industries to follow suit. In 1938, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which set the standard workweek at 40 hours and mandated overtime pay for hours worked beyond that threshold. Similar legislative actions took place in other countries.
Potential Benefits of the 40-Hour Workweek
The standard 40-hour workweek has been advocated for and implemented in many countries around the world due to its numerous potential benefits when compared to longer work days and weeks, like those experienced during the Industrial Revolution.
Some of the key advantages associated with a 40-hour workweek include:
- Improved Work-Life Balance: A shorter workweek allows individuals to have more time for personal activities, family, and leisure pursuits. It helps maintain a better balance between work and personal life, thereby reducing stress and burnout.
- Enhanced Productivity: Research suggests that excessively long work hours can lead to diminishing returns in productivity. By limiting the workweek to 40 hours, employees can maintain focus, remain more engaged, and ultimately achieve higher levels of productivity during their working hours.
- Better Physical and Mental Health: Long work hours have been linked to various health issues, including increased stress levels, sleep deprivation, and mental health problems. A 40-hour workweek typically provides individuals with two full days for rest, relaxation, and self-care, which can contribute to better overall well-being.
- Increased Job Satisfaction: When employees have more time for themselves and their personal hobbies or goals, they are more likely to experience greater job satisfaction. In fact, statistics published by AnsonAlex found that 55% of Americans who work more than 40 hours a week are dissatisfied with their jobs. A shorter workweek can lead to higher morale, improved job retention rates, and increased loyalty toward the employer.
- Opportunities for Skill Development: Workers following a standard workweek schedule have more time available than those working over 40 hours and can invest this time in their personal growth, hobbies, and the development of new skills.
It’s important to note that the potential benefits of a 40-hour workweek can vary based on factors such as industry, job type, and individual preferences. Implementing a shorter workweek requires careful consideration of factors, including productivity goals, economic feasibility, and industry-specific requirements.
Are 40 Hours Necessary? The Criticisms and Challenges
While the 40-hour workweek has its benefits, especially when compared to work schedules that exceed eight-hour days, there are also criticisms and challenges associated with its implementation.
Some concerns that have workers asking for another cut in workweek hours include:
- Plateaued Productivity: There are reports indicating that reducing work hours may actually increase productivity. Research has shown that long work hours can result in burnout, fatigue, and decreased concentration, ultimately reducing productivity. By working fewer hours per week, individuals can maintain higher levels of focus and energy during their work hours, leading to improved efficiency and output.
- Flexibility and Work Arrangements: The traditional 40-hour workweek may not accommodate the diverse needs and preferences of all employees. Some individuals may prefer alternative work arrangements, such as flexible scheduling, compressed workweeks, or remote work. The rigid adherence to a standard 40-hour workweek may limit options for work-life integration and hinder productivity for certain individuals or industries that could benefit from more flexible approaches.
- Income and Financial Considerations: For employees who rely on overtime or additional hours to earn a sufficient income, a reduction in the workweek may result in reduced earnings.
- Enhanced creativity and problem-solving: Taking regular breaks and having more leisure time allows the mind to relax and recharge. This can stimulate creativity and lead to fresh perspectives when approaching work-related challenges. By stepping away from work and engaging in different activities, individuals may find innovative solutions to problems they might not have considered while working long hours.
- Global Variations: The standard 40-hour workweek is not universally applicable across all countries and cultures. Different countries have diverse work norms, legal frameworks, and cultural expectations regarding working hours. The Netherlands, for example, has the shortest average workweek of 29 hours, followed by Denmark at 32 hours per week. On the other hand, workers in Columbia and Turkey put in the longest days at 48-hour workweeks, according to a report published in The Balance.
How Many Hours Are Americans Working Today?
Implementing the 40-hour workweek was a major improvement in the lifestyle of laborers in the 1920s and 30s when many were putting in 55–60 hours per week. However, the mindset regarding work has changed over time. Today, the average American adult works 38.7 hours per week, showing Americans prefer to finish their work in less time.
Here are some stats on U.S. workweeks:
- Adults ages 25–54 put in the most hours, averaging 40.2 per week.
- Men work an average of 40.5 hours per week, compared to women who work 36.6 hours on average.
- African Americans work the most of any race or ethnicity in the U.S., at 38.8 hours per week.
- Married adults work more than single adults; married men put in 41.9 hours a week on average and married women work an average of 37.1 hours weekly.
According to a report by Zippia, the average office employee is productive for only 2 hours and 53 minutes a day, which is 31% of the average eight-hour workday. However, productivity in the U.S. has increased by 5% since the start of the pandemic, which researchers believe is associated with an increase in remote working.
How to Work 40 Hours a Week While Maintaining Work-Life Balance
1. Set Boundaries
It also allows for better focus and concentration during designated work hours, leading to increased efficiency and job satisfaction. Additionally, setting boundaries helps individuals prioritize personal time, relationships, and self-care while they’re not on the clock, fostering a more balanced and fulfilling life.
To establish workplace boundaries, do the following:
- Define and communicate your working hours: Clearly establish the start and end times of your workday and communicate them to your colleagues, clients, and superiors.
- Limit after-hours communication: Set boundaries on responding to work-related emails, messages, or calls outside of your working hours, unless it’s an emergency or part of your job requirements.
- Delegate and say “no”: Learn to delegate tasks and responsibilities when possible, and don’t be afraid to say “no” to additional work or commitments that exceed your job role.
- Avoid multitasking: Focus on one task at a time instead of multitasking to maintain better concentration and prevent work from spilling over into personal time.
- Set realistic expectations: Communicate your workload and deadlines realistically to avoid overwhelming yourself and create a more sustainable work pace.
2. Schedule Breaks
Taking breaks at work is crucial for work-life balance as it provides mental and physical rejuvenation, enhances productivity and focus, reduces stress, prevents burnout, and allows for better integration of personal activities.
By stepping away from work tasks and engaging in activities that help you relax and recharge, you can prevent mental fatigue and boost overall productivity. A systematic review published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that pausing work throughout the day can improve well-being and help get more work done.
Incorporate regular breaks during your workday and make time for a proper lunch break to recharge and avoid prolonged periods of continuous work.
3. Prioritize Tasks
Prioritizing tasks at work is essential for work-life balance as it enables efficient time management, reduces stress and overwhelm, enhances productivity, and improves decision-making.
By identifying and focusing on the most important tasks, you can allocate your time effectively and accomplish meaningful work first, when you have the most energy. Prioritization also reduces the risk of feeling overwhelmed, leading to a more satisfying and harmonious work-life integration.
To prioritize work tasks, do the following:
- Decide on what tasks are most important and should be completed first.
- Time-block your schedule by leaving 2–3 hours of deep work to get important tasks done before taking a break.
- Use a checklist or detailed calendar to track your progress throughout the workday.
4. Stay Engaged
A report by Zippia states that not only are engaged employees 21% more productive, but they are far less likely to be absent from work or leave their jobs.
To be more engaged at work, consider the following strategies:
- Set clear goals to give you a sense of purpose and direction.
- Seek challenging tasks that stretch your skills and abilities.
- Foster positive connections with colleagues, supervisors, and team members to create a sense of belonging and encourage collaboration.
- Actively seek feedback on your performance and provide constructive feedback to others.
- Be proactive in taking ownership of your work and seeking opportunities to contribute.
- Continuously develop and enhance your skills through training, learning opportunities, and professional development.
- Find meaning in your work and reflect on how your contributions align with your personal values.
- Acknowledge and celebrate your accomplishments, both big and small.
- Adopt a positive attitude and mindset toward your work. Focus on the aspects you enjoy and appreciate, and approach challenges with a problem-solving mindset.
5. Create a Designated Workspace
Creating a designated workspace, especially when you work from home, promotes focus and productivity by establishing boundaries between work and your personal life. It also enhances organization and efficiency while fostering a professional mindset so that you won’t be easily distracted.
By designating a specific area for work, you create an environment that minimizes distractions and signals your brain to enter a productive mindset. This separation between work and personal space contributes to a healthier work-life balance and allows for better organization of work-related materials.
Follow these guidelines for creating a workspace:
- Select an area in your home or office that can be dedicated to your work. Consider factors like natural light, noise levels, and privacy.
- Clear any unnecessary items or distractions from the workspace. Keep it clean, organized, and free from clutter to create a focused environment.
- Arrange lighting in a way that minimizes glare and provides sufficient brightness for your work tasks. Natural light is ideal, but if that’s not possible, use a combination of ambient and task lighting to create a well-lit workspace.
- Gather the tools, equipment, and supplies you need for your work. This may include a computer, printer, stationery, and any specific tools or resources required for your tasks.
- Add elements that make the space personal and inspiring. This could include artwork, plants, motivational quotes, or any other items that bring you joy and boost your motivation.
- Consider adding elements that enhance your comfort and well-being, such as a comfortable chair, a standing desk option, a small indoor plant, or a calming scent diffuser.
6. Spend Time Disconnected
Take vacations and time off work without guilt, and truly disconnect from work during those periods to recharge and rejuvenate. Taking time to disconnect allows you to recharge, enjoy personal pursuits, and maintain a more balanced and fulfilling lifestyle.
There are numerous benefits of disconnecting from work, including the following:
- Avoiding burnout and recharging
- Improving mental and physical health
- Building personal relationships
- Improving your sense of fulfillment
- Increasing engagement when you’re back at work
What About a 4-Day Workweek?
While working 40 hours a week was a major improvement for laborers in the early 20th century, 94 percent of workers today say they would enjoy a 4-day workweek model, and 85 percent think it’s logistically possible for them.
With the increase in technology, a spike in remote working, and a taste of greater personal time during the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are focused on improving productivity during a shorter period of time to gain a greater work-life balance. It’s easy to understand why employees would prefer a shorter workweek, but what do employers think about it?
Pilot programs across the globe have found that a 4-day workweek may:
- Improve employee satisfaction
- Increase productivity
- Support working mothers
- Create better environmental conditions
- Improve employee retention and hiring
In the U.S., Kickstarter and Healthwise are two companies that have experimented with a 32-hour workweek, and both reported positive results, suggesting that their employees are more engaged, focused, and satisfied. Healthwise also reported a revenue increase since starting the reduced trial.
There are some limitations to the 4-day workweek model, however, including the fact that it doesn’t work for every job, such as healthcare workers, teachers, and manufacturing workers. It also requires firm guidelines, monitoring and performance measurements, and an adjustment period.
For now, each company needs to base its workweek schedule on its purpose, services, and needs, which vary across industries and locations.
To learn more about the potential benefits and drawbacks of the 4-day workweek, read this article next:
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