Why Modern Working Hours Can’t Be Sustained Any Longer

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The !Kung of the Kalahari are among the last living people to adhere to the sort of hunter-gathering lifestyle that would’ve been representative of all humans 10,000 years ago. Modern society tends to dismiss them as primitives. Yet they have an average workweek of 15 hours and enjoy some of the lowest rates of heart disease and blood cholesterol ever recorded. Perhaps they’re onto something we’ve missed.

During the Industrial Revolution, labor laws notoriously failed to protect the working class, including women and children. Working hours could hit 15 per day, with laborers dealing with dangerous machinery and harsh environmental conditions. Labor unions had to fight for a 40-hour workweek.

But as times have moved on, we remain rooted in this schedule despite the many indications that cutting back further on working hours would be better. Not just for the individual workers, but for the companies that employ them and our society as a whole.

Don’t fight the flow

The modern age is undergoing a massive shift towards digital transformation. Across all industries, advances in technology have enabled more tasks to become either fully automated or largely handled by AI with some human supervision.

Along with this trend, it’s expected that more of the jobs that remain for actual people to handle will involve heuristic work. Such jobs will emphasize vital human attributes such as creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving.

And to maximize our productivity in that sort of work, we need to be fully engaged, entering what psychologists term a ‘flow state.’ The problem is that organizations that have predicated themselves on a 40-hour workweek are inherently creating disruptions for their employees.

Employers on a 9-to-5 aren’t just expected to be physically present. They need to be responsive to messages and emails, attentive during meetings or when a colleague or supervisor engages them. But what we need is around four uninterrupted hours to achieve flow and tackle heuristic work with maximum productivity. Shifting towards quality and away from empty quantity, an organization could get even better productivity with just 5 or 6 work hours a day.

Losing opportunities for meaning

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Burnout is an all-too-common complaint in today’s workforce. Research has shown three major dimensions of burnout: overwhelming exhaustion, feeling detached from the job, and a sense of inefficacy.

Clearly, logging more work hours each day risks exhaustion in the long haul. This doesn’t just apply to salaried jobs but also to hustle culture and the gig economy. What’s less apparent is the connection to our sense of purpose.

Meaningful work is hard to come by, yet people are conditioned to seek it out. The truth is that most jobs don’t really align with the things that employees feel passionate about.

Many people can work around this by using their discretionary time through passion projects or volunteer activities. Maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of grief and bereavement programs, making you feel truly cared for during a time of need. These often enlist volunteers for whom the experience of meaningful service is also a chance to make a difference, something their jobs might not offer.

Eight-hour workdays are too long as it is. But when a job has nothing to do with your passion or doesn’t really maximize your skill set, you seek greater purpose outside of work. And you can be denied those meaningful opportunities by a schedule that’s just too busy, further feeding the burnout loop.

The need to be sustainable

Reducing an employee’s work hours doesn’t just boost workplace productivity or give them the chance to recharge their batteries through rest or purposeful activities. It’s also an opportunity to make work sustainable on the individual and societal levels.

When people get to spend more hours at home, they tend to reinvest much of that time in healthy habits. Preparing home-cooked meals, or getting regular exercise, will help improve an employee’s long-term health. Getting to spend more time with friends and family provides a similar boost to well-being.

And by sending people home early or giving them an extra day off each week, companies can cut down on operating costs. Studies estimate that in the UK, a collective shift to a four-day workweek would reduce the country’s carbon footprint by 21.3%. This benefit is realized by reducing carbon-intensive commuting activities and shifting away from the more energy-consuming demands of office equipment, as workers spend more time at home.

We’re living in a time when the costs of unsustainable activities are catching up to us. Yet many companies remain stuck by default in a workweek that was ratified in 1938. It’s time that our schedule caught up with modern reality so that workers can maximize their hours for the benefit of all involved.

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