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Are We Facing The End Of The 8 Hour Workday?

June 9th, 2015 by

Shift work, flexible hours and freelancing means the traditional 9-5 working hours may soon be consigned to history. But there was a reason why we settled on the eight-hour workday in the first place, and it’s worth remembering.

Anyone who’s ever had to wait at home all day for a plumber or a mattress delivery knows that flexible working can be a blessing. Working from home while waiting for someone means most of your time will be spent waiting around so you’ll have plenty of time to be productive. It can also mean the freedom to start the working day a little later (and also finish later) on a day when you have a doctor’s appointment.

Companies are realising that people appreciate being able to adjust their work hours. As long as productivity doesn’t suffer, does it matter when the work gets done? For parents of young children, leaving the office early can facilitate crucial extra time with kids while they’re awake – work can be picked up again after dinner.

Before the eight-hour workday is consigned to history, it’s worth remembering there’s a reason that number of work hours was settled on in the first place. It has less to do with the 9-5 structure most offices have settled into, but everything to do with how much work a person can do in a day before they become too tired to continue. Is this new flexible way of working leading us to do too much?

Unions pushed for the 40-hour work week in the UK and US in the early 19th century, and succeeded in it becoming standard in a number of industries. A large part of why this happened was because industry bosses were faced with heaps of research which proved the same thing over and over again: once someone works too much overtime, they get increasingly tired and productivity takes a dive. Also, if you keep workers at a breakneck schedule for too long, they eventually get to the point where they’re so useless they might as well not have worked any overtime at all.

Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company, was an early adopter of the eight-hour workday, cutting the shifts at the his factory as early as 1914. He was widely criticised by fellow industry bosses for this move, but by the 1930s it was becoming common. “Throughout the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, these studies [into the link between work hours and output] were apparently conducted by the hundreds, and by the 1960s, the benefits of the 40-hour week were accepted almost beyond question in corporate America,” wrote software engineer Evan Robinson, in a 2006 white paper.

Research continues to show that companies get the same amount of *good* work done in eight hours as in ten, because after eight hours tiredness takes over. You get the same amount of good work done in five days as you do in six, for the same reason. Recently, a Stanford study proved the theory yet again: companies get as much done in 55 hours as in 70, due to the drop-off in productivity.

People can work beyond these limits if needed of course, but generally speaking this is simply how the human brain and body works. This means that it doesn’t make sense for companies to pay people overtime if they’re not going to be as productive. For workers, it makes more sense to go home, have a rest and come back fresh in the morning rather than try and push on.

For Henry Ford’s factory workers, this was a simple enough principle to implement. The challenge today is that technology has enabled people to essentially never stop working. Not to mention a culture of “passion” where people are respected for staying late in the office. As flexible hours continue to increase as a trend, maybe the next task for bosses will be not to make sure we’re all working enough when no one can see us – but to make sure we don’t work more than we should. After all, if we’re overworked and burned out, we’re no good to anybody.

Productivity should be encouraged and nurtured at all times in business. Did you know that factors such as the colour of your office could be detrimental to staff productivity? Find out more about how to keep employees at optimum working capacity here.

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