When Americans think of “work,” we often think about 9-to-5 shifts, 15-minute breaks, a minimum wage of $7.25 or a 40-hour workweek.
But where did that last figure come from? Why have Americans come to accept a much more intensive 40-hour workweek than other countries? And, what would happen if the standard workweek was 30 hours? You might have more time to invest in yourself, but first, take some time to learn more about the country’s labor laws.
Last updated: Nov. 18, 2019
Who Came Up With the 40-Hour Week?
The 40-hour workweek results from simple math: Eight-hour days at five days a week have long been the American standard. Of course, that figure didn’t appear out of thin air.
We owe the notion to Welsh industrialist and labor rights activist Robert Owen, who famously split the day into “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” Owen’s idea didn’t catch on in his native Europe but was adopted as a slogan in the post-Civil War United States.
History of the 40-Hour Workweek: A New Deal
By the time the Great Depression rolled around, America knew it had a problem with exploitative working hours. In fact, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration sowed the first seeds of America’s 40-hour workweek in 1933 under the New Deal economic policy.
An early component of the National Industrial Recovery Act — which aimed to raise wages and grow jobs to stimulate the economy — it resulted in employers signing 2.3 million agreements to limit workweeks to between 35 and 40 hours, and also pay a fair minimum wage.
History of the 40-Hour Workweek: A Standard Is Born
Three years later, the Public Contracts Act of 1936 was on the table, calling for government contractors to officially adopt the eight-hours-per-day, 40-hours-per-week standard.
The bill met with congressional resistance and was eventually simplified, then heavily amended and finally signed into law as the now-iconic Fair Labor Standards Act in October 1938 by President Roosevelt. The act officially limited workweeks to 44 hours.
Today’s Changing Landscape and Labor Market
Full-time workers put in 8 1/2 hours per day or 42 1/2 hours per week, according to annual averages from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, changing work landscapes mean that “the average” is also changing. And depending on the job or industry, it’s not unusual to see some people put in 50-hour or even 60-hour workweeks.
Contract labor is also on the rise. Many people are opting to work as much as possible through freelance, temporary and “gig economy” jobs, like driving for Uber or Lyft.
“Contract workers work 100 hours per week with no overtime,” a University of California at Santa Barbara history professor told CNBC in a 2017 article. “Today, the eight-hour workday is falling apart.”
Does the US Put In More Hours Than Other Countries?
To put it bluntly, despite paying a lower minimum wage than many countries, very few industrialized nations put in more hours than the U.S.
Americans put more hours on the clock than their peers in England, France, Australia, Germany, Canada, Italy, Norway, Japan and other nations, according to 2018 data from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.
The U.S. ranks 11 out of the 38 countries on the list in terms of the most workweek hours. Costa Rica, Korea, Russia and Greece stand at the top of the list. However, no one works harder than Mexico. There, labor laws cap the work week at 48 hours rather than 44.
The Reality: Americans Feel Stressed Out About Working Long Hours
There are ways to maintain a better work-life balance, even just based on your career choice. But in a 2017 poll conducted by Paychex, 25% of Americans reported feeling stressed about work an average of three days a week, with 15% stating that long or erratic work hours is the most stressful part of their job.
Compared to the 13% who responded the same way to a 1960 Harris Poll about feeling work stress, Paychex’s figure indicates that Americans are feeling more overworked than ever.
So, Why the Disparity in Workweeks?
In a 2016 interview, Ben Steverman of Bloomberg News shed light on the difference between the American and European workweek.
“If you look at the 1970s, Americans and Europeans were working about the same amount of hours,” he said. “So how do you explain that? Something’s changed in the U.S.”
Steverman speculates that higher taxes give European workers less incentive to put in long hours, while more powerful labor unions act as watchdogs for their well-being. Likewise, the promise of a pension leads to early retirement for many Europeans.
The Downside of 40-Hour Workweeks: Burnout and Fatigue
As expected, burnout and fatigue are major drawbacks to longer workweeks. According to a 2017 study published in Social Science and Medicine, “long work hours erode health.”
More specifically, one of the study’s authors — Dr. Huong Dinh of the Australian National University — wrote that there’s a “tipping point of 39 hours for an average person, beyond which their mental health starts to decline.” This results in everything from decreased productivity to increased health risks.
The Harvard Business Review sums it up: “There’s a large body of research that suggests that regardless of our reasons for working long hours, overwork does not help us. For starters, it doesn’t seem to result in more output. (…) Considerable evidence shows that overwork is not just neutral — it hurts us and the companies we work for.”
The Upside of 40-Hour Workweeks: Higher Productivity
While the potential positives of a 40-hour workweek aren’t quite as scientific as the drawbacks, they do exist.
The sweet spot for hours often boils down to the person and the job in question. The daily productivity of an artist or athlete, for instance, might diminish after just a few hours of concentrated work. But for a truck driver or factory worker, more hours might have a direct correlation to greater productivity.
“People push themselves to the point where they will have problems,” K. Anders Ericsson, the co-author of “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise,” told Healthline. However, “if you have somebody who loves what they are doing, would you want to limit that person?” he added.
The Upside of 40-Hour Workweeks: Economic Benefits
On the subject of longer workweeks, the idea of overtime hours inevitably comes into play — and they might actually have some economic benefits.
In a 2015 column of the Monthly Labor Review, the Bureau of Labor Statistics wrote: “Many firms view overtime as a useful means of dealing with unanticipated economic events, including fluctuations in product demand and in rates of absenteeism, as well as breakdowns in production or the organizational workflow. Overtime work designed to accommodate unforeseen, usually short-term events is likely to remain a permanent feature of the labor market scene.”
The Downside of 30-Hour Workweeks: Division Among Employees
As with the 40-hour workweek, there are some definite cons to switching to a 30-hour workweek. This is especially true if there are certain teams working 30 hours per week and other teams working 40-plus hours per week within the same company. This could cause division within the company, with those working traditional hours looking down upon or resenting those with abbreviated hours.
The Downside of 30-Hour Workweeks: Less Availability to Clients
The clients and consumers that rely on a business expect good customer service, which typically involves being available during standard business hours Monday through Friday. If employees work abbreviated hours and are not available to provide customer service, this could lead to frustration for clients and consumers — and could perhaps even lead to the loss of some clients or consumers.
The Upside of 30-Hour Workweeks: Improved Employee Health
While there are certainly benefits to a 40-hour workweek, there are also benefits of reducing work hours to 30 per week, including employee health — both physical and mental.
A 2015 study published in The Lancet found that employees who work long hours have a higher risk of stroke than those who work fewer hours. And a 2018 study published in the Annals of Occupational and Environmental Medicine concluded that the risk of depression is higher in people who work long hours, with job stress significantly contributing to this risk.
The Upside of 30-Hour Workweeks: Better Work-Life Balance
Working fewer hours means employees have more time to pursue passions and spend time with friends and family. Enabling employees to have a healthy work-life balance not only benefits employees but employers as well. According to research conducted by the Corporate Executive Board, employees who feel that they have a good work-life balance work 21% harder than those that feel they do not.
The Upside of 30-Hour Workweeks: Saves Money
Employers that opt to switch to a 30-hour workweek could save money in two ways, the first of which is by paying employees less than they would earn if they worked 40 hours a week. This might not be great news for employees, but perhaps the better work-life balance would make up for the pay decrease.
Even if employers do not choose to decrease pay, they could still save money on overhead costs. If workers worked four days in an office instead of five, that’s a whole extra day of savings on utilities each week.
30-Hour Workweeks — Is It Possible?
Because so few American companies have adopted a 30-hour workweek standard, it’s difficult to predict how a widespread 30-hour workweek might affect the U.S. business landscape. However, some companies — including Amazon — have experimented with it. Here’s how 30-hour workweeks in America and beyond have affected employees, their companies and the economy at large.
The 30-Hour Workweek at New Zealand Financial Firm Perpetual Guardian
New Zealand firm Perpetual Guardian — which manages trusts, wills and estates — experimented with having its employees work four days a week instead of five, without reducing employees’ pay. The firm ran the experiment in March and April in 2018 and found that the reduced work hours actually improved productivity among its employees while also benefiting their work-life balance. The improvement in work-life balance gave employees more energy to be productive during workdays, The New York Times reported. Perpetual Guardian was so pleased with the results of the experiment that it hoped to make the change in work hours permanent.
The 30-Hour Workweek for Retirement-Home Workers in Sweden
From February 2015 to December 2016, select government-employed retirement-home workers in Sweden had their daily work hours reduced from eight to six. Although employees were happy with the change, reporting their shorter shifts made them feel less stressed, it ended up being a major expense for the government, which had to hire more people to cover the vacated shifts. The Swedish government deemed the experiment too expensive to become a widespread practice anytime soon, The New York Times reported.
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The 30-Hour Workweek at Amazon
Amazon started testing a 30-hour workweek structure in 2016. In the experiment, select team members were to receive the same benefits as full-time employees but only work 30 hours per week and receive 75% of the pay full-time workers earn.
It’s unclear how Amazon’s initiative played out. Amazon still advertises its part-time team initiative on its website, but tellingly, there are currently no active job listings for this team.
The 30-Hour Workweek at Online Learning Platform Treehouse
Portland, Oregon-based online learning platform Treehouse aimed to be the antidote to tech companies that expect their employees to work nearly round-the-clock. When the company launched in 2011, it immediately implemented a four-day, 32-hour work week, Business Insider reported. However, in 2016, Treehouse laid off nearly 20% of its workforce as a way to pursue profitability and, shortly after, it changed to a 40-hour workweek, The Oregonian reported.
“The employees understood that we couldn’t lay off people and then turn around and say we weren’t going to work on Fridays,” the company’s chief executive Ryan Carson told the paper. “It just didn’t seem right. I’m sad we had to end the 32-hour work week, but our [m]ission is much more important.”
The 30-Hour Workweek at Website and App Design Firm Reusser Design
Indiana-based company Reusser Design, which creates websites and apps, didn’t technically switch to a 30-hour workweek, but it made it standard for its employees to work only Monday through Thursday, with a rotating group of employees working on Fridays to answer phones, help visitors and deal with emergencies. However, the typical workday Monday through Thursday is 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., which translates to 10 hours of work per day — so it still adds up to a 40-hour workweek.
“Longer workdays mean more concentration time, and that, paired with a conscious effort to minimize interruptions, means more productive days,” content strategist Andy Welfle wrote in a company blog post. “As a bonus, our team gets Fridays off to work on creative projects, spend more time with their family or maybe just (sleep) in.”
The 30-Hour Workweek for Utah Government Employees
Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman enacted a four-day workweek for thousands of state government employees in 2008 as a way to improve efficiency, reduce costs and conserve energy, Daily Caller reported. As with Reusser Design, employees still worked 40 hours, but it was spread over four days instead of five. Even though employees were technically working the same number of hours, the savings Huntsman anticipated never actually materialized, and the experiment was scrapped three years later.
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Gabrielle Olya contributed to the reporting for this article.
About the Author
Dan is an honors graduate of western Kentucky’s Murray State University and has been a freelance writer and full-time creative since 2009, in addition to co-founding and co-owning two active media production businesses – one for the west coast in Los Angeles, California, and one for the east in Cincinnati, Ohio. As an independent creative professional with a scroll-like resume of both blue collar and white collar experience and a longtime business writer, Dan has been fortunate enough to publish with the likes of Chron.com, Fortune, The Motley Fool, Career Trends, Bizfluent, MSN Money, Legal Beagle, San Francisco Chronicle’s SFGate, USA Today, Builder’s Capital, Salon.com and Zacks.com, among others. He’s also offered his words to such diverse brands as ASUS, Kellog’s, Discover, Sony Pictures, Samsung, Linksys, LIVESTRONG, Office Depot, Canon Inc., Caesar’s Entertainment Corporation and Verizon, as well as frequently writing in the fields of entertainment, travel, fitness, lifestyle and fashion.