The Movement to Reduce the Workweek – Time for Change
Lead and Learn
Jesse Gavin, Well-Being Director at Baylor College of Medicine and Doctor of Public Health Student at UTHealth School of Public Health
Apr. 13, 2023
With increased personal and professional demands on workers, it has become more important for public health experts and organizational leaders to continue –and even expand – their focus on employee health and well-being. United States-based employees have reported increased stress, burnout, decreased productivity, decreased work/life balance, and other negative personal health outcomes over the past decade. With recent changes in how some employees work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there has also been a push to change overtime pay eligibility and reduce the standard workweek from 40 hours per week to 32-36 hours. Differing from compressed workweeks (4/10s or 9/80 schedules) that have been in place within organizations for some time, reduced workweeks would allow employees to work less without compromising their current pay structure.
Research has shown that this change to working hours can yield positive results for employees and organizations but there is still hesitancy from large employers and certain sectors. This piece aims to examine the history of the standard workweek, discuss the negative side effects of overwork, and examine some arguments against this change. A change of this magnitude can seem impossible because of the historical aspects of the standard workweek structure, but it is possible and needed.
In the 1800s, most US workers in industrial organizations worked long hours (70+) and in predominately unsafe conditions. At the beginning of the 1900s, labor unions pushed for stricter safety and work hour policies with a common motto, “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what you will” (Brockell, 2021). Finally, in 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) reduced the national standard workweek to 44 hours and was later amended to 40 hours in 1940. Another aspect of the FLSA is that it set the limits for employees’ eligibility for overtime pay and who might be “exempt.”
Since these laws were established, Americans have steadily increased their working hours well beyond 40, and more than any other industrialized nation (Twenge et al., 2010). According to a 2022 poll conducted by Gallup, 41% of average full-time employees worked 45+ hours per week.
Consequences of Overwork
A systematic review by Pega et al. (2021) highlighted the causal association working long hours has on heart disease and stroke. Researchers used cross-sectional studies and surveys from 183 countries in 2000, 2010, and 2016. They found that around 9% of the countries in the sample were subjected to long working hours, working greater than 50 hours per week, and between 4%-6% of the deaths from heart disease and stroke were associated with overwork.
With the increasing time demands we experience in our personal and professional lives, the risk of psychological stress, exhaustion, and burnout increases. Current estimates show that 50-80% of employees report one or more symptoms of burnout and the effects can be devastating. Personal and social consequences of burnout may include increased uptake of negative coping mechanisms like drugs and alcohol, not wanting to socialize with others, and possible depression or suicidal thoughts.
The healthcare community and other service-related occupations commonly report higher stress and burnout rates than the general population due to long working hours, among other variables (Rotenstein, 2018). This increase in stress and burnout can also affect the organization due to increases in employee turnover or job satisfaction and decreases in overall engagement. Reducing the workweek would allow individuals more time to handle personal tasks only available during limited weekday hours, increase family time, and increase overall job satisfaction. In the past, I have taken a whole day off to complete personal tasks like doctor visits, veterinary visits, and scheduling at-home services. If I had a dedicated weekday where I could handle my personal demands, I would not need to take time off work to accomplish them.
Increased income is commonly linked to increases in working hours. Pouwels et al. (2008) conducted an interesting study to describe the "price of happiness." Their study addressed the moderating factor working hours have on income and happiness. The researchers argue that prior literature concludes that earning a higher income does increase happiness but does not consider the effect working hours, sometimes needed to earn a higher income, has on the relationship. The researchers concluded that income correlates to increased happiness, but the relationship is reduced when considering the number of working hours. Working more hours decreases our happiness, even when making more income.
Potential Negative Side Effects of Work Hour Reductions
The benefits of working less are well documented, but there is evidence of potential downsides to reducing work hours (Lepinteur, 2019). Some people argue that reducing work hours will increase the amount of time employees will need to work while at home and negatively affect our stress levels. However, Parkinson’s Law is the adage that work expands to fill the time allocated for the task. If a project is scheduled to take two weeks, it will probably take two weeks.
The 40-hour workweek is so ingrained in our culture that reducing the time we spend at work seems impossible, but according to Parkinson’s Law, we will adjust to ensure the same work gets done in a shorter period. Additionally, employers have mentioned increased scheduling difficulty reducing the workweek would have on their organization and inability to meet the needs of their customers.
However, employers can navigate these barriers with planning and communication with employees. Kallis et al. (2013) highlighted the final negative side effect I want to mention. If organizations implement reduced workweeks, it may increase economic demands and demands on environmental commodities. These researchers note that reduced workweeks might benefit employees’ well-being but would adversely affect the environment.
Leading the Charge
While some organizations are making changes to their internal policies on their own, two of the leaders in the movement to reduce the standard workweek are the nonprofit organization 4-Day Week Global and Congressman Mark Takano of California.
Between 2015 and 2019, 4 Day Week Global conducted one of the largest studies on reduced workweeks and found overwhelming positive results. Additionally, they laid the groundwork for how organizations can implement a shorter workweek. Some of these approaches include meeting autonomy, allowing employees to choose which meetings they need to attend throughout the day, and job sharing. Since these results were published in 2021, 4 Day Week Global and individual organizations have conducted additional pilots in many countries, including the United States. Continued exploratory research and pilots in larger organizations and customer-driven sectors are needed to show how these results can be generalized in larger organizations and in more time-demanding job sectors, such as healthcare and education.
From a policy perspective, California Congressman Mark Takano introduced the Thirty-Two-Hour Workweek Act in 2021 (H.R.7428) but lost momentum once it was assigned to the House Committee on Education and Labor. Recently, Congressman Takano reintroduced this act (H.R.1332), and as of March 1, 2023, it has been referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
How to Implement a 32-Hour Workweek
1. Consider how your organization measures success.
Many organizations still operate on a manufacturing model when contemplating employee value. Is the number of projects completed used to measure the success of employees, customers served, and emails answered? Is success linked to time spent on the job or the job itself? One of the first steps when considering implementing a reduced workweek model is to think about how success is measured within your organization and for employees.
2. Create a schedule that works for your organization.
When employees hear about reduced workweeks, they immediately think about three-day weekends and having Friday or Monday off, but it is important to explain that to meet the goals and demands of the organization, employees need to schedule varying days off during the week or that employees work different schedules, morning, midday, or afternoon shifts.
3. Shift in how we think about work.
Even with a change in the policies and organizational structure regarding the standard workweek, we must also consider why we feel compelled to work more. As mentioned throughout this article, even with the standard workweek set at 40 hours, numerous employees still feel compelled to work 40, 50, or even 60+ hours per week. As a society, we need to shift how we think about work and spend so much of our lives trying to meet the demands of others, sometimes at the expense of personal relationships and priorities.
Closing Thoughts and Moving Forward
Since 1940, we have made tremendous advances in all aspects of our lives, but the workweek structure has remained stagnant and unchanged. Reducing the standard workweek within your organization is possible. Approaches and frameworks used by other organizations to implement a reduced workweek are available, and the research on the individual and organizational benefits of reducing the workweek is clear. The time for change is now.
The ideas expressed in this article are specific to Jesse Gavin and do not represent the views of Baylor College of Medicine, UTHealth, or their stakeholders.
Brockell, G. (2021, September 6). That Time America almost had a 30-hour work week. Retrieved from https://www.adn.com/nation-world/2021/09/06/that-time-america-almost-had-a-30-hour-work-week/
Kallis, G., Kalush, M., O.'Flynn, H., Rossiter, J., & Ashford, N. (2013). “Friday off”: Reducing Working Hours in Europe. Sustainability (Basel, Switzerland), 5(4), 1545-1567. https://doi.org/10.3390/su5041545
Lepinteur, A. (2019). The shorter workweek and worker wellbeing: Evidence from Portugal and France. Labour economics, 58, 204-220. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.labeco.2018.05.010
Pega, F., Náfrádi, B., Momen, N. C., Ujita, Y., Streicher, K. N., Prüss-Üstün, A. M., Descatha, A., Driscoll, T., Fischer, F. M., Godderis, L., Kiiver, H. M., Li, J., Magnusson Hanson, L. L., Rugulies, R., Sørensen, K., & Woodruff, T. J. (2021). Global, regional, and national burdens of ischemic heart disease and stroke attributable to exposure to long working hours for 194 countries, 2000–2016: A systematic analysis from the WHO/ILO Joint Estimates of the Work-related Burden of Disease and Injury. Environment international, 154, 106595-106595. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2021.106595
Pouwels, B., Siegers, J., & Vlasblom, J. D. (2008). Income, working hours, and happiness. Economics letters, 99(1), 72-74. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.econlet.2007.05.032 (Economics Letters)
Rotenstein, L. S., Torre, M., Ramos, M. A., Rosales, R. C., Guille, C., Sen, S., & Mata, D. A. (2018). Prevalence of Burnout Among Physicians: A Systematic Review. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association, 320(11), 1131-1150. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2018.12777
Twenge, J.M., Campbell, S.M., Hoffman, B.J., Lance, C.E. (2010). Generational Differences in Work Values: Leisure and Extrinsic Values Increasing, Social and Intrinsic Values Decreasing. Journal of management. 36(5):1117-1142. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206309352246
ABOUT JESSE GAVIN
Jesse Gavin serves as the Senior Wellness Manager for Baylor College of Medicine (BCM) in Houston, TX. Since the implementation of the full program in 2014, BCM has won numerous awards including being named the nation’s 5th Healthiest Employer by Healthiest Employers LLC in 2016, 2018 WELCOA Well Workplace - Silver award winner and 2019 KOOP National Health Award winner. Jesse received a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Fitness and Human Performance. He is also currently pursuing a DrPH (Doctor of Public Health) degree from UT Health School of Public Health.
Aside from his role at Baylor College of Medicine Jesse volunteers his time in the community for both the wellness sector and different organizations. He served as Co-Chair for the Houston Corporate Wellness Group in 2015 and routinely works with the American Heart Association, MS Society and Houston Business Group on Health. Jesse is also very involved with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, Pasadena Livestock Show and Rodeo, Vice President of the Come and Taste It Cooking Team.
Over the years, Jesse has had the privilege of speaking at multiple conferences. The main scope of Jesse’s speaking engagements involve creating healthy workplace cultures and creating programs for the new workforce, which includes millennials. Jesse’s current research interests are the changes in corporate structure to fit a modern lifestyle, millennials, and engagement.
ABOUT BAYLOR COLLEGE OF MEDICINE
Baylor College of Medicine (Baylor) is a health sciences university that creates knowledge and applies science and discoveries to further education, healthcare, and community service locally and globally. Located at the heart of the Texas Medical Center in Houston, Texas, Baylor is a multifaceted non-profit corporation specializing in education, research, and clinical practice (Baylor Medicine).
Baylor College of Medicine has been a long-standing member of the Healthiest Employers community. In 2022, they were ranked 2nd in the 10,000+ Employees Category for Healthiest Employers of Texas award, 10th in the Healthiest 100 Workplaces in America award, and were inducted into the Healthiest Employers Hall of Fame in 2022.
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