A 40-hour work week improves productivity

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Nowadays some professional people define a 40-hour work week as “part-time.”   In today’s job market, employees have little choice but to do whatever their employers demand.  But from a business efficiency standpoint, this may be a mistake.  Studies indicate that employee productivity is at its best when they work eight hours a day, five days a week.

That’s why Henry Ford implemented the eight-hour, five-day schedule in his factories.  He wanted his plants to operate 24 hours a day at maximum efficiency, and he found, by experimenting with different work schedules, that this was the best way to do it.

Sara Robinson, writing for AlterNet, cited a white paper by her husband, a software programmer named Evan Robinson, that made the case for the 40-hour week.

[The] paper he wrote for the International Game Developers’ Association in 2005 … contains a wealth of links to studies conducted by businesses, universities, industry associations, and the military that supported early-20th-century leaders as they embraced the short week.

“Throughout the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, these studies were apparently conducted by the hundreds,” writes Robinson; “and by the 1960s, the benefits of the 40-hour week were accepted almost beyond question in corporate America. In 1962, the Chamber of Commerce even published a pamphlet extolling the productivity gains of reduced hours.”

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.  Let ‘em go home, rest up and come back on Monday.  It’s better for everybody.

As time went on and the unions made disability compensation and workplace safety into bigger and bigger issues, another set of concerns further buttressed the wisdom of the short week.  A growing mountain of data was showing that catastrophic accidents — the kind that disable workers, damage capital equipment, shut down the lines, open the company to lawsuits, and upset shareholders — were far more likely to occur when workers were working overtime and overtired.

That sealed the deal: for most businesses, the potential human, capital, legal, and financial risks of going over 40 hours a week simply weren’t worth taking.  By World War II, the consensus was clear and widespread: even (or especially!) under the extreme demands of wartime, overworking employees is counterproductive and dangerous, and no competent workplace should ever attempt to push its people beyond that limit.

Sara Robinson wrote that the same is true of white-collar workers.

… 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.  It sounds strange, but if you’re a knowledge worker, the truth of this may become clear if you think about your own typical work day.  Odds are good that you probably turn out five or six good, productive hours of hard mental work; and then spend the other two or three hours on the job in meetings, answering e-mail, making phone calls, and so on.  You can stay longer if your boss asks; but after six hours, all he’s really got left is a butt in a chair.  Your brain has already clocked out and gone home.

The other thing about knowledge workers is that they’re exquisitely sensitive to even minor sleep loss.  Research by the US military has shown that losing just one hour of sleep per night for a week will cause a level of cognitive degradation equivalent to a .10 blood alcohol level.  Worse: most people who’ve fallen into this state typically have no idea of just how impaired they are.  It’s only when you look at the dramatically lower quality of their output that it shows up. Robinson writes:  “If they came to work that drunk, we’d fire them — we’d rightly see them as a manifest risk to our enterprise, our data, our capital equipment, us, and themselves. But we don’t think twice about making an equivalent level of sleep deprivation a condition of continued employment.”

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. There’s also a huge body of research on life-threatening errors made by exhausted medical residents, as well as research by the US military on the catastrophic effects of fatigue on the target discrimination abilities of artillery operators. (As Robinson dryly notes: “It’s a good thing knowledge workers rarely have to worry about friendly fire.”)

So if a 40-hour work week is so beneficial, how did corporate managers come to think otherwise?  Sara Robinson says it is the result of taking Silicon Valley entrepreneurs as role models.  Many of the great high-tech companies were founded by obsessive young computer programmers who, as college students, spent all day and all night at the computer center.  Companies they founded, such as Google and Apple, try to make the workplace a home away from home.  This is good for a certain type of person, but not for normal people, Robinson said.

I would say another factor is the decline of labor unions.  Even though unions never represented a majority of American workers, their gains set a benchmark for pay and working conditions, including the 40-hour week and time-and-a-half for overtime.  We newspaper reporters benefited indirectly from the power of the International Typographers Union.  It didn’t look right to have a higher standard for blue-collar workers than us college-educated professionals.

Yet another factor was the U.S. policy after World War Two to use mandates and tax incentives to make private business a provider of public welfare.  Each employee, whether they work 40 hours or 50 hours, is entitled to the company’s health insurance, pension benefit, vacation, sick leave and so on.  So there is a cost saving in having four employees working 50 hours a week instead of five employees working 40 hours a week.

While there is an incentive to overwork professional employees, there also is an incentive to underwork lower-paid employees.  Many Americans who are employed part-time would like to work full-time.  Many managers limit weekly hours specifically to prevent employees from reaching a threshold where they would be eligible for benefits.

Click on Why We Have to Go Back to a 40-Hour Work Week to Keep Our Sanity for Sara Robinson’s full article.

Click on Why Crunch Mode Doesn’t Work for Evan Robinson’s paper.

Click on Why I Favor Five Days Work With Six Days Pay for Henry Ford’s reasons for having a 40-hour work week.

Click on The Prosperity Covenant for a Canadian’s argument for eliminating overtime work in order to increase jobs.

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