Unions started fighting for the short week in both the UK and US in the early 19th century. By the latter part of the century, it was becoming the norm in an increasing number of industries. And a weird thing happened: over and over — across many business sectors in many countries — business owners discovered that when they gave into the union and cut the hours, their businesses became significantly more productive and profitable.
By 1914, emboldened by a dozen years of in-house research, Henry Ford famously took the radical step of doubling his workers’ pay, and cut shifts in Ford plants from nine hours to eight. By that point, there were a solid five decades of industrial research that proved, beyond a doubt, that if you wanted to keep your workers bright, healthy, productive, safe and efficient over a sustained stretch of time, you kept them to no more than 40 hours a week and eight hours a day.
...What these studies showed, over and over, was that industrial workers have eight good, reliable hours a day in them. On average, you get no more widgets out of a 10-hour day than you do out of an eight-hour day. Likewise, the overall output for the work week will be exactly the same at the end of six days as it would be after five days. So paying hourly workers to stick around once they’ve put in their weekly 40 is basically nothing more than a stupid and abusive way to burn up profits.
There was one exception to this rule. Research by the Business Roundtable in the 1980s found that you could get short-term gains by going to 60- or 70-hour weeks very briefly — for example, pushing extra hard for a few weeks to meet a critical production deadline. However, there were a few serious caveats attached to this which used to be well-known, but have mostly been forgotten.This is the really fascinating part:
One is that increasing a team’s hours in the office by 50 percent (from 40 to 60 hours) does not result in 50 percent more output (as Henry Ford could have told them).
Here’s why. By the eighth hour of the day, people’s best work is usually already behind them (typically turned in between hours 2 and 6). In Hour 9, as fatigue sets in, they’re only going to deliver a fraction of their usual capacity. And with every extra hour beyond that, the workers’ productivity level continues to drop, until at around 10 or 12 hours they hit full exhaustion.
Another is that overtime is only effective over very short sprints. This is because (as Sidney Chapman showed in 1909) daily productivity starts falling off in the second week, and declines rapidly with every successive week as burnout sets in. Without adequate rest, recreation, nutrition and time off to just be, people get dull and stupid. They can’t focus. They spend more time answering e-mail and goofing off than they do working. They make mistakes that they’d never make if they were rested; and fixing those mistakes takes longer because they’re fried. Robinson writes that he’s seen overworked software teams descend into a negative-progress mode, where they are actually losing ground week over week because they’re so mentally exhausted that they’re making more errors than they can fix.
And finally: these death marches take a longer-term productivity toll as well. Once the crisis has passed and that 60-hour-a-week team gets to go back to its regular 40, it can take several more weeks before the burnout begins to lift enough for them to resume their typical productivity level. So, for a while, you’ll get significantly less than a full 40 out of them.
After WWII, as the GI Bill sent more workers into white-collar jobs, employers at first assumed that the limits that applied to industrial workers probably didn’t apply to knowledge workers. Everybody knew that eight hours a day was pretty much the limit for a guy swinging a hammer or a shovel; but those grey-flannel guys are just sitting at desks. We’re paying them more; shouldn’t we be able to ask more of them?
The short answer is: no. In fact, research shows that knowledge workers actually have fewer good hours in a day than manual laborers do — on average, about six hours, as opposed to eight. The other thing about knowledge workers is that they’re exquisitely sensitive to even minor sleep loss. And the potential for catastrophic failure can be every bit as high for knowledge workers as it is for laborers. Robinson cites the follow-up investigations on the Exxon Valdez disaster and the Challenger explosion. Both sets of investigators found that severely overworked, overtired decision-makers played significant roles in bringing about these disasters.
How did this knowledge, which was so deeply embedded in three generations of American business management that it was utterly taken for granted, come to be so lost to us now?I've always said that if you can't get your work done in forty hours, you're either a ridiculously inefficient worker or have too much work. If you stop and think about it, forty hours a week is a huge chunk of time. Is there really that much work to do? And why, especially when unemployment is so high? BTW, the same is true for amount of vacation - workers in Europe with 4-6 weeks of vacation get as much done as workers in countries with 1-2 weeks, because they are not stressed and burned out, which makes you less productive.
The first is the emergence of Silicon Valley as an economic powerhouse in the late 1970s. Since WWII, the valley had attracted a unique breed of worker — scientists and technologists who carried with them a singular passion for research and innovation. Asperger’s Syndrome wasn’t named and identified until 1994, but by the 1950s, the defense industries in California’s Santa Clara Valley were already drawing in brilliant young men and women who fit the profile: single-minded, socially awkward, emotionally detached and blessed (or cursed) with a singular, unique, laser-like focus on some particular area of obsessive interest. For these people, work wasn’t just work; it was their life’s passion, and they devoted every waking hour to it, usually to the exclusion of non-work relationships, exercise, sleep, food and sometimes even personal care.
And then, in the early ‘80s, Tom Peters came along, and promoted the Silicon Valley work ethic to the rest of the country in the name of “excellence.” He extolled tech giants like HP and Apple for the “passion” of their workers, and told old-industry employers that they could move into the new age by seeking out and rewarding that kind of passion in their employees, too. Though Peters didn’t advocate this explicitly, it was implicitly understood that to “passionate” people, 40-hour weeks were old-fashioned and boring. In the new workplace, people would find their ultimate meaning and happiness in the sheer unrivaled joy of work. They wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
There were two problems with this. The first is that this “passion” ideal didn’t recognize that the vast majority of people have legitimate physical, emotional and psychological needs — things like sleep, exercise, relaxation and the maintenance of strong family and social support bonds — that these engineers didn’t have to nearly the same degree. The second was that most managers, lacking windows into their workers’ souls, decided to cut corners and measure passion with one easy-to-chart metric: “willingness to spend your entire life at the office.”
The new ideal was to unleash “internal entrepreneurs” — Randian übermenschen who would devote all their energies to the corporation’s success, in expectation of great reward — and who were willing to assume all the risks themselves. In this brave new world, the real go-getters were the ones who were willing to put in weekends and Saturdays, who put their families on hold, who ate at their desks and slept in their cubicles. Forty-hour weeks were for losers and slackers, who began to vanish from America’s business landscape. And with their passing, we all but forgot all the very good reasons that we used to have those limits.
Within 15 years, everything America’s managers used to know about sustaining worker productivity was forgotten. All that remains of those heady, optimistic days is the mandatory 60-hour work-week. And, unless you’re an hourly worker — still entitled to time and a half by law — the only inducement employers currently offer in exchange for submitting yourself to this abuse is that you get to keep your job.
The management class justifies their outsize rewards by obsessive overwork; it is not that they are more necessary or more productive. To them workaholism = ability. The non-workaholics get left behind or fired. The obsessive worker types get ahead, even though their extra work time is not productive. These workaholics become the new managerial class and surround themselves with people just like them, deriding anybody else as "lazy" and worthy of being let go. I've experienced this first-hand in m own career. If you're unlucky enough to have a workaholic office culture as I do, and you don't like sitting at a desk for ten to twelve hours (or even eight), then you can forget any sort of career advancement. Heroic overwork is seen as a badge of honor and the sign of a good worker (when it really means an inefficient worker or one who can't delegate because they are a control freak.)
I can tell you from personal experience that over eight hours, everyone's work is crap (and probably before). Obsessive overwork is not about producing better work or giving more value to your client. Remember, your client is paying just as much for hours 40-80 as they are for the first forty, but getting much lower quality work as a result. So, in fact, you're actually screwing them over. And the management class charges even more for their "services", so the client is screwed even more. Of course, most of management's "work" is salesmanship, "schmoozing", and hanging out at golf courses, sporting events and dinner parties. And if you're not getting paid for those extra hours, well, we have a word for involuntarily working for free. Slavery.
So if it's not about higher productivity or better quality of work, why do employers consistently try and squeeze blood from a stone in the United States? I can think of two reasons. One is the attitude that workers must suffer. Give them rights and benefits, and soon they'll be demanding more. Workers need to be put in their place. The others is that obsessive overwork is built into our DNA. As many people have shown, immigrants came to America predominatly to get rich and make a killing. These people carried the genes for obsessive work, and they quickly took over the business culture in America and shaped it as a reflection of their personality. Anyone who didn't conform - who just wanted to get the necessary work done and get on with the business of enjoying life - was "lazy" and soon out on their ear. As the amount of jobs shrinkgs over the coming decades, this will become progressively worse. You can expect a lot more stressed-out workers leading to more drug abuse, broken homes, poor health, suicide, and even workplace shootings as things break down:
Stress, Burnout Taking Toll on Many Still in U.S. Workforce (PBS)
Remember, we work more in the age of fossil fuels and nuclear power than did medieval peasants or ancient Incas.