The Rise And Fall Of The 40-Hour Work Week

by Tara Rodden Robinson on March 29, 2012

in Learning,Performance Management,Training

©2011; Tara Rodden Robinson; All Rights ReservedI have a remarkable number of clients who all sound pretty much alike, especially when they talk about time. They use the exact same words: pressured, crunched, frenetic, rushed. To a man (or woman), they all say that have the same awful feeling that time is running out on them, their lives, their time with their children or friends or elderly parents. To combat their lack of time, many, if not most, work more than forty hours a week. And very often, getting their workday curtailed to something more reasonable is a key goal.

In a recent article, Sara Robinson (no relation) details the rise and fall of the 40-hour work week. She summarizes:
“Adding more hours to the workday does not correlate one-to-one with higher productivity. Working overtime is unsustainable in anything but the very short term. And working a lot of overtime creates a level of burnout that sets in far sooner, is far more acute, and requires much more to fix than most bosses or workers think it does. The research proves that anything more than a very few weeks of this does more harm than good.

Deep down, I think most of us know this. However, as Robinson points out, the norm has shifted. Culturally, many organizations expect employees to work as many hours as necessary–or else. As a productivity coach, I often see clients who are often faced with this terrible conundrum of how to downshift the number of hours they work to something more sustainable while at the same time continuing to please their employers. Employers who increasingly demand almost constant availability via email, instant messaging, and cell phone.

Truth be told, I believe that having more than 40 hours in a work week creates a sort of paradoxical ineffectiveness that goes beyond the exhaustion and burnout that Robinson describes in her article.

I noticed a huge change in my own productivity when I limited myself to working 40 hours a week. Suddenly, I was much more cognizant of how I’d been wasting precious time that could have been spent actually getting work done. I found myself ruthlessly weeding out busy work and pruning out distractions. My determination to preserve my off time created a steely-eyed resolve that resulted in getting my work done in much less time that it had been taking before.

Some of the people I work with end up creating a sort of stealth mode: learning to work more effectively in less time and then sort of pretending to work longer hours, when in fact, they’re off the clock. I really wish there was another option for them, but until employers get wise to the fact that a sustainable work week is in their (that is, the company’s) best interest, this kind of arrangement may be the only alternative that many of my clients have.

What about you? What expectations (spoken or tacit) does your organization have about working more than 40 hours a week?




About the Author:

Tara is the newest member of the Cascade Employers team. As the Productivity Facilitator, her specialty is helping people conquer overwhelm and overload. She provides coaching services as well as speaking and training on many topics related to work productivity. You can learn more about her by visiting our website.

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