My first salaried position was at a local insurance firm. For the majority of my tenure at this organization, I never worked the standard 40-hour workweek. Instead, I found myself regularly working 60+ hours, including in my evenings and over the weekends. And when you look at the hours I was working versus the salary I was making, it shook out to well under minimum wage.
It was also an environment, as you can probably imagine, where any unscheduled absence was considered a strike against you, and time off was expected to be made up.
I found myself in this position because it was just what everyone else was doing and no one around me seemed to question it, so I never questioned that this was an unhealthy or unsustainable way of working.
But now we find ourselves 18 months into the biggest disruption to ‘the way things have always been done’ in recent memory. Employees are tired, they have been traumatized, and they are leaving their roles in record numbers. We’re starting to figure it out: we can have it better.
The 40-Hour Workweek is a Relic of the Industrial Revolution
What started as organized labor movements from workers enduring grueling workdays under intense conditions came to fruition for most of the US workforce in 1937 when, as part of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), an eight-hour day and 40-hour workweek was established.
What’s important to note about this is this norm was established when the majority of the US workforce consisted of manufacturing, agricultural, and other factory-type work. Meaning, you clocked in and clocked out, and work rarely (if ever) followed you home. And the FLSA actively disincentivized employers from asking for overtime from their workers by requiring them to be paid wages for that time.
Additionally, two-income households were practically nonexistent in 1937. The percentage of married women who worked rose from 11.7 percent in 1930 to 15.2 percent in 1940. This meant there was one person focused on the emotional and domestic labor of managing a household and a family.
Since then, that workweek has slowly bloated to well above the norm once you add in longer commutes, the rise of intrusive technology allowing for bosses to reach workers at all hours, the removal of the lunch hour as personal time due to bigger workloads, and more. The cruel irony is that the huge leaps in technological development were supposed to free us of time spent working, but instead has been used to find new, insidious ways of making workers “always on.”
According to the research done by Brigid Shulte, documented in her 2014 book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, we work 13 hours per week more in the 2000s than we did in the 1970s.
A recent Gallup poll survey showed that the average workweek for U.S. full-time employees consists of 47 hours. That adds up to nearly an extra full day of work every week. 11 percent of those surveyed worked 41-49 hours, 21 percent put in 50-59 hours every week, and a whole 18 percent work 60 or more hours.
We also know that for the majority of American workers, it is next to impossible to survive a single-income family. As of 2021, there isn’t a single state where a person can afford an apartment on a minimum wage income. With both income-earning members working, that leaves even less time to rest, to care for children, to run errands, prepare meals, and to take care of everything after-hours that must be done to stay afloat (let alone nurture and enjoy relationships with loved ones of hobbies that enrich our lives).
Stress from a 40-hour Workweek Can Injure You
Our bodies are designed to handle short-term stressors, but when the exposure to stress becomes chronic, we start to see symptoms manifest and impair our ability to function at peak performance. Stress from long workweeks can have an impact on all body systems, including the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal, nervous, and even reproductive systems. Symptoms can look like, but are not limited to:
- Tension headaches and migraines
- Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Inflammation in the heart and circulatory system
- Chronic fatigue
- Metabolic disorders
- Anxiety and depression
- Heartburn and acid reflux
- Changes to one’s appetite
- Chronic bowel disorders
- Lowered libido and sexual dysfunction
- Infertility and reproductive difficulties
Even more worrying, employees who work long hours are more likely to have a stroke than those who work standard hours and, in some cases, develop coronary heart disease.
People who work more than 55 hours per week had a 13% greater risk of a heart attack and were 33% more likely to suffer a stroke, compared with those who worked 35-40 hours per week.
And for employers that require more physical labor from their team members, the CDC found overexertion to be the second leading cause of injury and illness leading to days away from work for all workers, including younger ones (aged 16 through 24).
And this list doesn’t even scratch the surface of the mental health toll prolonged stress of the 40-hour workweek can cause.
The Costs of Overwork for Companies
Beyond the personal costs to your team members, there are significant costs to the organization as well when it comes to an overworked and under-supported workforce. American employers face an average of $300 billion per year in costs related to job stress, including health insurance premiums, absenteeism, poor performance, and more.
- Healthcare expenditures are nearly 50% greater for workers who report high levels of stress.
- Depression and anxiety are associated with nearly 10 annual sick days.
- Insurance claims for stress-related industrial accidents cost two times as much as non-stress-related industrial accidents.
- A 100-person organization that provides an average salary of $50,000 could have turnover and replacement costs of approximately $660,000 to $2.6 million per year.
- Unscheduled absenteeism costs roughly $3,600 per year for each hourly worker. Additionally, it also costs roughly $2,650 each year for salaried employees.
How Long Should the Workweek Be?
Well, let’s start with what we know to be true. And that is, whether you like it or not, the average worker will work approximately three hours during an eight-hour workday—two hours and 53 minutes, to be precise. Our brains are not wired for endurance days, they are instead better suited to sprints of deep focus followed by periods of intentional rest.
Humans are also built to have varying and significant peaks of productivity throughout the day, all thanks to our natural circadian rhythms. Working for eight hours straight is in direct contradiction to this body of scientific knowledge and understanding of how we should work. It often takes us hours after the start of the workday to reach the first peak of alertness before falling into a sluggish state around 3 p.m. in the afternoon. Some may then have a second wave of energy around 6 p.m. in the evening, but the decrease starts again shortly after, and alertness isn’t regained until the next morning period.
Allowing a flexible workweek is one way to capitalize on the natural energy cycles of employees, but managers must be willing to look past their own biases and discomfort by allowing employees to set their own schedules.
Reducing the 40-hour workweek to something closer to 35 hours has shown promise for French workers since its implementation in 2000. Iceland has also completed a multi-year experiment reducing workers to a 35-hour workweek. “Productivity and service provision remained the same or improved across the majority of trial workplaces,” and “Worker wellbeing increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout to health and work-life balance.”
When we start to prioritize the well-being of our team members over the absolute maximization of the bottom-line (for a select few individuals to benefit from), you will see your team as productive, if not more productive than they were before (because you’re allowing them rest) and you will see the work produced being some of the best, most innovative work yet.
How Working Less Means Delivering More
In the spirit of walking the walk and talking the talk, I want to take a moment and share what we’ve done here at SNoWCo.
We now consider employees eligible for full-time wages and benefits at 32 hours per week – not the industry-standard 40-hour workweek. And it’s important to clarify that we consider 32 hours our weekly maximum, not minimum.
So, what does this look like in practice? It looks like freedom. Truly.
When we talked about what we wanted our working hours to look like, freedom was the one thread that came up repeatedly. Freedom to be able to run errands, or attend a child’s school event without guilt, or grab a quick nap in the middle of the day so you are in peak condition for that mid-afternoon call.
We are clear about project and role expectations. We make client communications a priority, we have standing meetings that must be attended, and each member of our team has work that must be completed, but outside of that? The rest of the time is for my team members to manage however they need (and want) to.
And if I can be vulnerable with you for a moment, I want to admit to you that I knew this was a ‘risky’ move because we are a small company. If the work is not done, that is a problem for everybody in our company. So, I get it.
But I am here to tell you it is 100% worth it.
I, personally, am spending more time with family and friends, my evenings and weekends are free to do what I want, and my relationships have never been better. When I first started this company, I was working 60 to 70 hours a week because I, at first, needed to get off the ground, but continued that way because I felt like it is what I had to continue to do to ‘keep up.’
Well, I am happy to report that even after dropping our full-time definition to 32 hours, we will have a record year without record work hours.
I remember in that first salaried role that I felt like I had a lot of ‘costs’ I needed to pay as a new employee. I needed to pick what holidays I attended, or what number of vacations I went on. And the constant sacrificing of all things personal has been so normalized, not just within that organization, but by everyone around me at that time.
The biggest shift I have experienced following starting my own company is gaining not just flexibility, but freedom with my time. And I have been able to pay that forward to all my team members, as well.
Our work is inherently creative work, so we need time to reflect on the work we are doing with clients, to process and make connections so we can bring new insights to each session. We have recommitted to working smarter, not harder. And that means we do not always say yes to everything that comes our way.
And our work is the best that it has ever been.
My dear friend Laura Mazzulo recently said to me, “Maybe it’s OK to coast in second gear and not always burnout in fifth gear,” and I really do think there is something to that sentiment. And so do a lot of the folks over on Twitter:
If you could choose the number of hours you worked and pay wouldn’t be impacted, how many hours would you work?
What amount would feel meaningful to you and still create impact for your company?
I’d love to hear why.
— Sarah Noll Wilson (@sarahnollwilson) October 12, 2021