40-Hour Work Week – The Magic of Sustainable Growth

Gran Canaria - Puerto de Mogan in the WinterOver the course of time you come to realise how there are a number of different articles published out there that you know are going to have a higher impact than others on how you perceive various different things, whether personal or work related. But what happens when you stumble on perhaps the most essential and critical article you have come across in a long while that manages to question a good number of the things we have been taking for granted at work for years? An article that dares to question how the business world has been functioning and operating over the course of decades by claiming, loud and clear, how companies keep ignoring 150 years of invaluable and precious research on how we become most effective and productive while at work. Are you prepared to be challenged, too, about your core work beliefs? Really? Are you sure? I mean, are you really sure? I can tell you it’s going to hurt, but maybe we need it that way, as one of those massive, unprecedented wake-up calls that may mark the beginning of something new and rather powerful: a smarter knowledge workforce.

A few days back I bumped into this very intriguing and rather helpful article put together by Jessica Stillman under the rather provocative title of “Why Working More Than 40 Hours a Week is Useless” where she points us out to a superb piece of writing done by Sara Robinson at Salon under the suggestive heading of “Bring back the 40-hour work week” where she questions something that I am sure most of us knew, deep inside, from all along, but that very few have dared to even bring up as a topic of conversation. Specially, at work. Basically, when was the last time you worked 40 hours a week? Or, more importantly, does working more than 40 hours per week make you more effective and productive at what you do? Well, Sara claims on that article that, contrary to what we may all believe in, it doesn’t. In fact, working over 40 hours per week is the most unproductive thing you can do to damage not only your work or your colleagues’ work, but also yourself, as a knowledge worker AND as a human being. And she has got 150 years of powerful research to back up that argument!

Whoahh! What do you say to that? I mean, really, what can you say to that? Right there, after having gone through that absolutely stunning piece (Long entry, for sure, but well worth reading every single word of it!), I came to the conclusion that in the 15 plus years I have been working in the corporate world I have never managed to make only 40 hours a week. And, notice how I am using the word manage, because I feel it fits in quite nicely in the whole context of how we have been taught over the course of decades that if you are only working those 40 hours a week you are just basically being underutilised and pretty much lazing around (Perhaps, nowadays even by checking out all of those social networking sites!). Well, it’s actually quite the opposite! You have just been abused left and right by the system into making you believe that working overtime is not only an expected behavior, but a desired one! By our employers, of course! But here’s the twist, by ourselves, knowledge workers, equally so, too! And that’s where things have gone horribly wrong. Apparently.

I can strongly recommend you make the time today to read through Sara’s dissertation, as I am sure you will then be thanking her for sharing it across in the first place and for being capable of opening your eyes, and brain!, to the unthinkable, specially, in today’s current financial turmoil: you don’t need, you shouldn’t have!, to work more than 40 hours a week to be effective and productive. So stop doing that today! Stop working those unpaid hours that research has proved don’t contribute much to your overall performance, or to the overall business outcomes!, and for a good number of reasons. Stop working longer hours than you should and you will even feel much better as a result of it eventually. Although it looks like things were not like that a while back.

Sara mentions how this work behaviour, and expectation!, probably, comes from something that’s been implanted in our work brain from all along. To quote:

[…] But you push on anyway, because everybody knows that working crazy hours is what it takes to prove that you’re “passionate” and “productive” and “a team player” — the kind of person who might just have a chance to survive the next round of layoffs.

But you eventually find out, through the hard way, you don’t survive it. And then what? That’s exactly what Sara covers successfully in her write-up. Like I have mentioned above, it’s a rather long column that she has put together, but in it she covers, in-depth, where the traditional 40 hour per week work schedule comes from (From the most of the unexpected places, I can tell you!), how and why it was established on that timeframe and how the whole concept of working overtime and staying productive is a myth. A myth we have been told to believe in all along, but that it doesn’t have any scientific validation it actually works. It doesn’t. At all. It makes us all sloppier at what we do. It drains our physical body, our brain, our capacity to collaborate, share our knowledge, innovative and think clearly; it damages not only our very own health, but also our very own healthy, and much needed!, relationships with the outside-out-of-work world: family, friends and relatives, etc. etc.

In her commentary, Sara gets to build up the case how the 40 hour a week work schedule got started with the labour based workforce, and how when we made the transition into the knowledge based work we pretty much ignored that good practice thinking we could demand more of our knowledge workers, because, you know, after all, they are no longer working hard with their hands, but with their brains, so there is this assumption you can get more out of that than whatever you have thought about it. In reality, it’s worse! Apparently, knowledge workers can only produce good quality work in a range of 6 to 7 hours per day. No more. Yes, I know! Really!!

I didn’t know that myself either! Fascinating! But it gets even better, because she then gets to build the case of when, how and why did we destroy the healthy and rather productive 40-hour week. Now, this particular section from her piece I find it really disturbing and rather uncomforting, because, in a way, she comes to claim how we, ourselves, knowledge workers, were the ones who demolished such well established industry standard of only working a certain amount of hours, before our work and output both start deteriorating. Very sobering piece for everyone out there to read through, ponder, reflect, and evaluate whether you yourself feel that you have contributed to it. I know for myself I surely have and having read the whole thing I’m glad I have now got an opportunity to do something about it.

That’s just what she gets to cover next with some very powerful and inspiring counterarguments. “Can we bring it back?” Should we bring it back? That we is not only knowledge workers themselves, but employers alike. According to her, for employees:

[…] The fundamental realization is that an employer who asks for more than eight hours a day or 40 hours a week is stealing something vital and precious from you. Every extra hour at work is going to cost you, big time, in some other critical area of your life. How will you make up the lost time? Will you ditch dinner and grab some fast food? Skip the workout? Miss the kids’ game this week? Sleep less? (Sex? What’s that?) And how many consecutive days can you keep making that trade-off before you are weakened in some permanent and substantial way? (Probably not as many as you think.) Changing this situation starts with the knowledge that an hour of overtime is a very real, material taking from our long-term well-being — and salaried workers aren’t even compensated for it

For employers, she adds:

“[…] the shift will be much harder, because it will require a wholesale change in some of the most basic assumptions of our business culture. Two generations of managers have now come of age believing that a “good manager” is one who can keep those butts in those chairs for as many hours as possible. This assumption is implicit in how important words like “productivity” and “motivation” are defined in today’s workplaces. A manager who can get the same amount of work out of people in fewer hours isn’t rewarded for her manifest skill at bringing out the best in people. Rather, she’s assumed to be underworking her team, who could clearly do even more if she’d simply demand more hours from them. If the crew is working 40 hours a week, she’ll be told to up it to 50. If they’re already at 50, management will want to get them in on nights and weekends, and turn it into 60. And if she balks — knowing that actual productivity will suffer if she complies — she won’t get promoted

Goodness! I am not sure what you folks would think about those two quotes, but I fear that she has described, tremendously well, and rather accurately, how the business world operates today, in 2012!!, and even more so when you start considering the current financial crisis and how precarious working conditions have become in most countries. So how can we rebel against that? How can we change the tide and revert back to what research over the course of 150 years has proved that it works just all right? I bet most of you out there would feel it’s not an easy task. Sara would agree with you on this regard, I would think. In fact, she offers a good number of options, and potential solutions, that would be worth while considering and pondering further. Go and read those, while over here I am going to take the liberty of adding a couple of suggestions myself on how we, both employers and knowledge workers, can get things back on track and into the right direction if we would want to survive further in this 21st century Knowledge Economy.

For employers:

Stop measuring the performance of your employee knowledge workforce by the amount of hours they put together on completing tasks or by their sheer physical presence at the office. Instead, measure the deliverables, the outcomes, the outputs, what they eventually provide as value-add to the company, i.e. to your customers, and if they can do that in, say, 4 hours, don’t add on them new tasks or additional work to do. Remember, there used to be a time when knowledge workers worked in a single project, with a single team, with a single mission and a specific set of goals. Bring that back, since you can only stretch productivity up to so much, before it takes a big hit on your overall business, which I am sure is the last thing you would want to do.

Also, it would help if businesses would, finally, understand that their knowledge workforce are, actually, people, knowledge workers, and not just some resources or assets that they can shuffle around freely at their will. Those knowledge workers have got many more better things to do than being treated like those resources you can place here or there at your own leisure, just because you feel you are entitled to. Well, may be not. There is a formula out there that’s been around since the 19th century (in Britain) that pretty much describes it rather nicely: “eight [hours] for work, eight for sleep and eight for what we will.” It’s still a formula that works. It’s a formula that needs to come back, because, as Sara mentions: ”[…] the bottom line is that people who have enough time to eat, sleep, play a little, exercise and maintain their relationships don’t have much need of their help” (Their as in industries and branches of medicine devoted to handling workplace stress).

For employees:

It’s going to be even harder and tougher altogether. I am sure you folks would have a good number of suggestions of what we, both employers and employees, could do about this important topic (And I would love to learn more about them in the comments!), but I sense that one of the key, important things that we could do, as knowledge workers ourselves, in order to make this happen, is to, finally, put a stop to that silly attitude of competing against each other to see and prove who is better in order to claim that well deserved promotion. When we all know, in most cases, no matter how hard you work, how competitive you have become with your colleagues, by protecting and hoarding your knowledge, assets, skills and expertise, or by how much you have managed to put down your peers so that you can stand out that, there is a great chance that you won’t get promoted. And then? Where does that leave you? … Exactly!

Yes, you may get promoted, but you may not. The thing is that while I’m writing these words there is a single key concept out there (And it is not slacking off work, nor stop working altogether, just in case you were thinking about that! heh) that we need to have plenty more of in our corporate world to help us understand how we are much much better off helping each other than fighting each other. Everyone out there would probably want to become an executive or a senior technical leader at some point in time, but, time and time again, in the age of the Sharing Economy, in the age of interconnectedness, of earning their trust by merit (More than anything else you may have done in the past!), of transparency, of engagement, of passion, of intrapreneurship, even, etc. etc. I can imagine how fighting others is not going to be very helpful, never has, eventually!, nor will it help you advance that much faster. And, definitely, stopping others from excelling at what they do, so you can come on top, will take a whole lot more than 40 hours a week. Indeed, in order for us to revert back into that 40 hour a week work mentality where we continuously aim at helping each other becoming better at what we already do, we need plenty more of Servant Leadership. At all levels, but starting with you, not everyone else, but you.

So, eventually, I couldn’t have agreed more with Sara’s conclusion on what’s at stake over here, in today’s business world, if we don’t take any action about it and just move on with what we think is the workplace of the future. I sense it’s got to be better than this, much better than this, because what’s at stake right now, and in the next few years, is our mere survival as knowledge workers, as human beings:

For the good of our bodies, our families, our communities, the profitability of American companies [Or any company], and the future of the country [any country], this insanity has to stop. Working long days and weeks has been incontrovertibly proven to be the stupidest, most expensive way there is to get work done. Our bosses are depleting resources from of the human capital pool without replenishing them. They are taking time, energy and resources that rightfully belong to us, and are part of our national common wealth

A few times in the past I have been talking over here in this blog about striking for smart work and sustainable growth in our knowledge based societies and after reading Sara’s last few words from her conclusion I can only say it’s now our job, our duty, perhaps, to make it happen, and the sooner, the better; we probably cannot even wait much longer, specially (to quote her:) … “If we’re going to talk about creating a more sustainable world, let’s start by talking about how to live low-stress, balanced work lives that leave us refreshed, strong and able to carry on as economic contributors for a full four or five decades, instead of burned out and broken by a too-early middle age. A full, productive 40-year career starts with full, productive 40-hour weeks. And nobody should be able to take that away from us, not even for the sake of a paycheck” [Emphasis mine to which I would add as well that it's probably not even worth it any longer. It never was in the first place]

So, have a good guess into what I’m going to start doing from next week onwards …

How about you?

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