Is the 60-hour work week dead?

Is the 60 hour work week over?
By Alex Burden, Student Blog

5 January 2017

Ah, the 60-hour work week. How we crave time at our desks or endlessly travelling onwards to the next meeting, like a horizon that keeps slipping away. The bravado of boasting that you haven’t been in home in days or barely had time to eat is coming to an end, at least in a few countries.

From then to now: reducing the 100-hour week.

The roots of long working hours in the UK stemmed from the industrial revolution, when factories, which employed huge numbers of the population, ran from dawn to dusk with low wages. This, in turn, encouraged workers to lengthen their shifts in order to make more money and encouraged their children to take up roles to provide for the family.

In the 18th century, it was common for factory workers to operate anywhere from 10-18 hours a day, six days a week. Robert Owen was the first to suggest an eight-hour UK workday in 1817: “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” 

By 1952, despite most employers being familiar with an eight-hour workday, workers racked up an average of 48 hours a week.

Is it actually reducing?

EY conducted a survey with 9,700 adults aged 18-67 across different companies in the US, UK, India, Japan, China, Germany, Mexico, and Brazil. They found that 46% of managers are working more than 40 hours per week, and four in 10 stated that their hours had increased in the previous five years. Over-work was also one of the top five reasons that people quit their jobs.

In Japan, a country infamous for long hours and spawning the word ‘karoshi’ meaning ‘death through overwork’, they are moving to reduce hours spent in work by potentially legislating five paid holidays per year.

Currently, few Japanese-based workers take their full entitled leave of 18.5 days per year, regarding it as disloyalty to their employer, or out of a 'fear' of being seen as unproductive. Some companies are now encouraging employees to take frequent naps during the day to enhance productivity.

This is due in part to the 200 deaths every year from punishing work schedules; it’s not unusual to rack up many hours of overtime and even Yuu Wakebe, the health ministry official overseeing working-hours policy, admitted to adding 100 hours of overtime a month.  

In contrast, recent research shows that only 5% of London city workers are clocking 60-hour weeks (12-hour days), down from 10% in 2012. The 40-hour work week and its benefits for business is still not a norm however, as most respondents claimed to work 41 to 50 hours a week.

“The City’s hard-working ethos hasn’t gone away but it’s becoming far less all-consuming than it used to be,” said Adam Jackson, managing director of recruiter Astbury Marsden.

This is good news, but what tends to be consistently ignored, is the fact that longer hours actually lowers productivity, due to the human body’s biological needs to rest, regroup and dispose of toxins within the brain.

The move away from a 60-hour work week certainly doesn’t go as far as initiatives in Sweden, where some employers are moving to a six-hour day to increase happiness. 

Could you work a 30-hour week?

The aim? To work smarter and produce more in a shorter space of time. Instead of taking four hours to write a report, you might only have two now, and without the luxury of time for potential procrastination, it results in more effective working practices. Toyota introduced a capped day in Gothenburg 13 years ago and saw lower turnover and higher profits.

“The eight-hour work day is not as effective as one would think," said Linus Feldt, CEO of app developer Filimundus. "To stay focused on a specific work task for eight hours is a huge challenge. In order to cope, we mix in things and pauses to make the work day more endurable."

As part of making this work, the employer has banned social media use, reduced meetings and removed other distractions that could prolong the day.

“My impression now is that it is easier to focus more intensely on the work that needs to be done and you have the stamina to do it and still have the energy left when leaving the office,” Mr Feldt added.

How long is your work week and could you envisage cutting your hours to boost productivity? Leave your comment below.


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