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The conventional wisdom of the last few decades has led us to believe that working longer hours, sacrificing free time and putting our personal needs on the backburner will turn us into the ideal employees and managers: effective, productive, passionate and dedicated. The problem is, it’s not true. Overworked, sleep-deprived, stressed out workers are not company superstars and are actually holding the company back from its full potential, according to a recent article in AlterNet.

Journalist Sara Robinson writes:

It’s a heresy now (good luck convincing your boss of what I’m about to say), but every hour you work over 40 hours a week is making you less effective and productive over both the short and the long haul. And it may sound weird, but it’s true: the single easiest, fastest thing your company can do to boost its output and profits — starting right now, today — is to get everybody off the 55-hour-a-week treadmill, and back onto a 40-hour footing.

How We Lost the 40-Hour Work Week & Increased Workplace Stress

The AlterNet article traces the history of how businesses came to adopt the 40-hour work week and how recent trends have caused them to abandon it, to the detriment of worker productivity and quality of life.

  • In the early 19th century, unions in the UK and US began lobbying for a shorter work week. By the later half of the century, it was becoming more common across industries. Business owners consistently discovered that as they met unions’ demands and cut workers’ hours, their businesses became much more profitable and productive.
  • In 1914, Henry Ford doubled his workers’ salaries and cut shifts in Ford plants from nine hours to eight, standardizing a 40-hour work week. Ford’s business boomed, and his competitors started to follow suit. In 1937, the short work week became the norm as part of the New Deal. “By that point, there were a solid five decades of industrial research that proved, beyond a doubt, that if you wanted to keep your workers bright, healthy, productive, safe and efficient over a sustained stretch of time, you kept them to no more than 40 hours a week and eight hours a day.”
  • The idea that keeping employees on the job longer will increase worker productivity is flawed. By hour nine of the work day, employees become tired and their capacity to do work at their normal capacity declines. They hit full exhaustion around 10 to 12 hours of work. Research shows that “knowledge workers” have even fewer productive hours in a day than manual laborers — six instead of eight.
  • The Business Roundtable study found that after eight 60-hour work weeks, the drop in productivity is so significant that the average team would have accomplished just as much if they had maintained a 40-hour work week the whole time.
  • With the tech boom beginning after World War II and building throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s in Silicon Valley, the 40-hour week began to be replaced by an obsession with working longer and harder to promote innovation and entrepreneurship:

… it was implicitly understood that to “passionate” people, 40-hour weeks were old-fashioned and boring. In the new workplace, people would find their ultimate meaning and happiness in the sheer unrivaled joy of work. They wouldn’t want to be anywhere else…

In this brave new world, the real go-getters were the ones who were willing to put in weekends and Saturdays, who put their families on hold, who ate at their desks and slept in their cubicles. Forty-hour weeks were for losers and slackers, who began to vanish from America’s business landscape. And with their passing, we all but forgot all the very good reasons that we used to have those limits.

Now, in 2012, businesses are feeling the long-term effects of working too much for too long. Employees struggle to try to find work-life balance, maintain productivity and combat workplace stress, while keeping their jobs in a volatile economic climate.

The author of the AlterNet article believes the solution is for managers and employees to take back the 40-hour work week and show how it will improve both worker productivity and profitability. Do you agree? Share your opinion in the comments.

How We Lost the 40-Hour Work Week & Increased Workplace Stress

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