Recently I caught up with a close friend because he recently bought a new home. While it was a painless experience, he did tell me an entertaining story about his younger brother. His little brother graduated from university last spring, and he’s now a part of the daily grind. You know how it is — working at least 40-hours per week. Anyway, his brother was supposed to help with the move. But, the brother overslept and was late for assisting with the move. His excuse? He was exhausted from working all week.
While we did have a chuckle at his brother’s expense, I also wanted to empathize with him. I mean, when you think about it, spending the majority of your time at work is exhausting.
I know. You have to work to pay your bills. But work is also good for you. If you know that your work is meaningful and serves a purpose, it can be a boost to your mental well-being. At the same time, though, working too much does the opposite. There are even some dire psychological effects if you’re working more than you should.
A quick history of the 40-hour workweek.
Alright, before I go any further, I want to answer an important question. Who came up with the 40-hour workweek?
It may come to a surprise to some of you, but the 40-hour-work week is a more recent development.
Thousands of years ago, our ancestors were hunter-gathers. Although that lifestyle seems harsh, it’s believed that people only spent four-hours a day hunting. Then, they figured out how to farm. Compared to hunting and gathering, it was a more complicated and more time-consuming way of life. After that, we entered the Industrial Revolution.
During this time “human beings were imprisoned in factories and mills for almost all of their waking hours, treated as nothing more than objects of labor, working in appalling conditions for appalling wages, and usually dying at a young age,” explains Catesby Holmes in a piece for The Conversation.
It was so bad that companies forced people to work between 12-15 hours per day for six days a week. In 1817, Robert Owen, a British textile-manufacturer came-up with the slogan “Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” to help his employees find balance.
Fast forward to Henry Ford in the early 20th Century, who discovered that employees were more productive if they only worked 5-days a week. And, that’s where you’re at today. Although, recent research, however, shows that an eight-hour workweek is ideal for mental health. Yes. You read that correctly. Not eight-hours a day. But, week.
So, yeah. As a whole, things have gotten better. But, we’re still chained to that antiquated 40-hour workweek that was established hundreds of years ago. And, that’s probably considering that working less then that is for the best.
We’re not meant to work eight-consecutive hours in a day.
“Humans have a well-defined internal clock that shapes our energy levels throughout the day: our circadian process, which is often referred to as a circadian rhythm because it tends to be very regular,” writes Christopher M. Barnes in HBR. And that plays a massive role in how we work.
“Although managers expect their employees to be at their best at all hours of the workday, it’s an unrealistic expectation,” explains Barnes. “Employees may want to be their best at all hours, but their natural circadian rhythms will not always align with this desire.” The human body has two productivity peaks in the course of the day. The first mid-morning and the second later on around 5 or 6 p.m.
Although everyone has their own specific rhythms, the point is, we’re just not meant to work for eight consecutive hours. Over the hours, various studies have found that when you’re circadian rhythms are disrupted, it “leads to weight gain, impulsivity, slower thinking, and other physiological and behavioral changes.” Barnes’ own research also found “that circadian mismatches increase the prevalence of unethical behavior, simply because victims lack the energy to resist temptations.”
The solution? Offer flexible hours. “Flextime provides an opportunity for employees to match their work schedules to their own circadian rhythms,” adds Barnes. If this isn’t an option, then take frequent breaks throughout the day. For example, work for around 90-minutes and then take a breather for approximately 20-minutes to grab a snack, walk outside, or take a cat nap.
Less work, more sleep, a better life.
Entrepreneurs and workaholics may take this for granted. But, working endlessly can “make people tired and resentful, and therefore less productive,” writes Holmes. “There is also evidence that too much work impairs our health, leading to poor sleep and an increased risk of conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.”
As for the psychological benefits, this “means less stress and anxiety.” IT can also strengthen relationships since we can” spend time with our loved ones, and have more energy to give them.” ICYMI, relationships make us healthier and happier.
Holmes also says that working less allows us “to live authentically through following our own innate interests so that we spend more time in the positive state that psychologists call “flow” (when we are intensely absorbed in enjoyable activities). We have more time and energy to nurture our creativity, which also leads to a more meaningful and purposeful life.”
Still not convinced? Holmes has found that when we aren’t always working, we can “experience the joys of doing nothing in particular.”
“People who experience this often report that they feel more grateful for life, more connected to nature, that they have more authentic relationships and become more creative and spiritual,” adds Holmes.
The solution? Set boundaries and work smarter. Don’t bring work home with you. When you’re off-the-clock, enjoy your downtime. What’s more, come up with ways to work smarter and not harder, such as:
- Trimming back your to-do-lists.
- Tracking your time.
- Focusing on one task at a time.
- Hiring people who are smarter than you.
- Automating and delegating repetitive tasks.
- Working on your most challenging tasks when you have the most energy.
- Batching similar tasks together.
Working less can solve all of our problems.
That may sound too good to be true. But, that’s the argument presented by Rutger Bregman on TED.com.
Some of the points have already been discussed. For instance, working less can reduce stress and improve life satisfaction. But, there also some compelling reasons why we should ditch the 40-hour workweek.
- Shorter workdays reduce errors and accidents.
- A reduced workweek could cut CO2 emissions. If you weren’t aware, mental health is an overlooked consequence of climate change.
- Work sharing may reduce unemployment.
- Short workweeks may reduce inequality and help achieve gender equality.
The solution? Switch to a 4-day work week or a 6-hour workday. It’s at least a start. And, it can be an easy adjustment if you shrink your deadlines. That’s a proven technique to combat Parkinson’s Law, which states, “work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”
For example, if you have three hours to complete a task, and you can get it done in two, you’ll still end-up using that entire block of time. But, if you only gave yourself an hour and a half, you’ll be more motivated and focused on completing that task within the shortened timeframe.
The evidence is clear. If you want to be happier, healthier, and more productive, then it’s time to spend less time at work. As an added perk, it will also make the world a slightly better place. Of course, before diving in headfirst, ease into this. Maybe cut back from 40-hours per week to 35 until you’ve found your ideal schedule.
And, if you’re leading a team, take steps like flexible scheduling and letting employees work remotely. Most importantly, put more of an emphasis on the results and not the hours your team has worked.