Friday, October 1, 2021

Reduced Work Hours: Four Sets of Insights, But One Big Question

In these times of unfilled jobs and higher pay, we’re getting a flurry of articles suggesting we cut back from five days a week, 40 hours a week, or both. 

The oldest I saw was a reissue of “The Research Is Clear:  Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies,” first published August 19, 2015 in the Harvard Business Review.  Six years on, except for the lack of pandemic references it looks current as ever, with the likes of “managers want employees to put in long days, respond to their emails at all hours, and willingly donate their off-hours – nights, weekends, vacation – without complaining” and “we log too many hours because of a mix of inner drivers, like ambition, machismo, greed, anxiety, guilt, enjoyment, pride, the pull of short-term rewards, a desire to prove we’re important, or an overdeveloped sense of duty.”  The piece cited studies allegedly showing that “overwork and the resulting stress can lead to all sorts of health problems, including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease,” with the usual correlation and causation problems, the difference between “a week or two of 60 hours to resolve a true crisis” and “chronic overwork,” and the doubtful or even negative value of more than 40 or 50.  Apparently, neither workers nor managers in many companies agree or even know about much of this, but it does set a starting point.

The first of the newer commentaries came out July 20th online and July 25th in print, by Bryce Covert in the New York Times, titled in the latter “Less Work, More Life.”  It recapped the studies above, but added mention of people, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts it, working part-time for economic reasons (“About one-tenth of American workers were working part time but trying to get more hours”), a statement that people in this country spend “7 to 19 percent more time on the job than our European peers,” that “employers steal… overtime hours spent in front of a computer,” and that longer time constitutes “a class divide in overwork” as “the demand to spend 60 hours at an office is one that depletes the lives of professional, higher-paid workers,” the last one refreshing as almost all printed complaints about job requirements have focused on the lowest-paying positions.  I add the effects of Parkinson’s Law, furthered by employees’ perceptions that they can always work into the evening or weekend if need be, and a related problem of people feeling more need to keep in touch because that is easy. 

Next, in Robin Madell’s September 21st Yahoo News “How Does a 4-Day Workweek Work,” we learned about a trend, probably driven by prospective employees demanding more personal time, which is varies between companies putting it into practice.  As well as differences in whether the third day off is fixed or at workers’ discretion, four-day pioneers Kickstarter, Monograph, and Nectafy split on the largest question, whether such a schedule means 32 hours or still 40.

Finally, we had “the Future of Work Should Mean Working Less,” by Jonathan Malesic on September 23rd in the New York Times.  I don’t share the author’s view that “work sits at the heart of Americans’ vision of human flourishing,” that “it’s how we earn dignity,” “how we prove our moral character,” or, much more, that “it’s where we seek meaning and purpose, which many of us interpret in spiritual terms” – those norms peaked in the 1950s, and modern-day employees are increasingly likely to get their emotional needs met from other ventures and relationships which they use their jobs to support, and have never stopped covering their spiritual life with religion.  As well and unfortunately, the “should” in the title exemplifies what else Malesic had to say, that we “ought to expect a bit less of people whose jobs grind them down” (and which are those?), that considering jobs away from the center of self-worth “justifies a living wage” (just exactly what is that?), and, worst, that “this new vision” (new?) “should inspire us to implement universal basic income and a higher minimum wage, shorter shifts for many workers and a shorter workweek for all at full pay,” something that could have been written by a fourth-grader in that paper’s For Kids section. 

More problematic than naivete, though, is the query looming over all of these stories:  If people are expected to work more, what does it mean to reduce stated hours from 40 to 32?  Before we decrease official time on the job, we need to address that.  It is silly to take pride in a cut to 32 hours if that only shrinks people’s labor from, say, 60 hours to 50.  The 40-hour standard workweek, fictional or not, has been described as the norm since the 1930s – bringing actual time below that is in fact two steps away.  Let us take them one at a time. 


  1. No need to make this two steps. Ambitious people will always strive to go "above and beyond". If the standard is 40, they will do 50. Once that happens, others feel compelled to at least pretend to do 50 to catch up.

    Drop the standard to 32 and yes, you'll probably get people going from 60 to 50. But the knock-on effect for everyone else society wide would be tremendous.

    The other obvious lever is to stritly enforce overtime and make overtime something that applies to managerial employees and other currently exempt groups.

    Either or both of these options would have an immense impact.