Does working eight hours a day really make sense?

Oct 11, 2023

4 mins

Does working eight hours a day really make sense?

How much of your working day is spent being productive? Be honest – no one is listening. Is it more than three hours? If so, you’re doing well. The average office worker is productive for just two hours and 53 minutes of their working day, according to a survey of nearly 2,000 employees in the UK. Given this figure, does the standard eight-hour working day make sense? Wouldn’t we benefit from cutting back our hours to avoid wasting time?

Picture this: It’s 7AM when the alarm goes off. At 7.10, you jump in the shower and then scarf down some breakfast. At 7.45, you make one last check in the mirror before heading off to work. You get back home 9-10 hours later. With an average workweek of 40 hours or more in the US, many employees spend at least eight hours a day at work, but are we honestly productive the whole time?

The question of productivity isn’t just limited to work, according to Albert Moukheiber, neuroscientist, clinical psychologist, and author. “Our brain doesn’t distinguish between what work is and what it isn’t, but it does differentiate between performative and non-performative tasks. Work is often performative, but we can also have a performative relationship with exercise, for example. We do many things out of obligation, not only work,” he explains.

Work tasks are often performative, but they require different levels of concentration. Some need to be done in a distraction-free environment, while others can be accomplished in an open office despite all the background noise. Little breaks – having coffee, conversations in the hall, or scrolling through TikTok – are not necessarily a waste of time. “You can’t concentrate solely on one assignment for eight hours a day, every day. Even at work, you engage in various activities like answering emails, attending meetings, and creating reports. Nobody works eight consecutive hours every day. Breaks are necessary; otherwise, we couldn’t function,” Moukheiber says.

A practical model for working

The 40-hour week and the eight-hour day in Western society have advantages – and disadvantages. The time of day we work, primarily 9-5, helps the economy to run efficiently. “Companies and employees need to communicate with each other, and during these eight working hours, we know everyone is relatively available,” explains Moukheiber. That’s why we don’t call our boss at 1am to discuss a project, and it’s the reason our optometrist doesn’t schedule appointments for Sunday afternoons.

In the past, employees had few rights when it came to what hours they worked, but this began to change with progressive social movements. “For many years, people worked non-stop. They slept in factories called ‘company towns,’ and true labor law didn’t exist. However, over time, rights were gained and eight-hour workdays were agreed upon,” says Moukheiber. However, no studies have been carried out yet to prove that an eight-hour day is the most productive or the best. “Is there objective evidence leading us to believe the eight-hour day is better than another division of labor?” Moukheiber asks. “No. The social rhythms of society haven’t been geared toward quality of life; these rhythms have been achieved through social and economic movements, and as we’ve been born into this world we’ve accepted them. In psychology, we call it the default choice,” he explains.

What if we could clock out earlier?

The eight-hour day is what we have become used to, but other working models could prove beneficial for both productivity and well-being. Among those models is the five-hour day, which involves working from 8am to 1pm, for example, and is popular in Germany. The goal behind it? To condense production activity into fewer hours and avoid presenteeism and pointless meetings. After five hours of work, employees are free to enjoy most of the afternoon. How valuable this is depends on how the extra time off is used. “A huge issue today is sedentary behavior,” Moukheiber says. “If I spend less time sitting at my desk, but then proceed to watch Netflix on my couch, this time is equal in terms of physical inactivity. However, if I use the extra time to go out, walk, or socialize, it’s a good thing.”

Depending on the company, its culture, and what it is trying to achieve, ‘non-productive’ time may be a necessity. Making small talk with colleagues or even doing nothing for a while can enhance relationships or provide a mental breather between activities. “These times are essential components of work because work isn’t just about production, it’s also about moments of social connection and learning that give little breathers between important tasks,” says Samuel Durand, an author and speaker on the future of work.

Modifying the framework

Trying out the shorter working day has led to some interesting results. In 2004, the Toyota factory in Gothenburg, Sweden, shortened its employees’ days from eight to six hours. The benefits included better quality of life, less absenteeism, increased motivation, and hence, greater productivity. Inspired by this success, the country experimented with a six-hour workday nationally in 2015, only to cut it two years later. “They realized there were significant benefits for people whose jobs were concentrated in a particular location, like the Toyota factory workers. However, office employees can generally work anywhere, so they continued working when they got home because their mental workload was still present. The advantages of a shorter workday apply to those who can make a clear separation between personal and professional life,” Durand explains.

Workplace well-being and increased productivity depend not only on working fewer hours but also on mental workload. Moukheiber says, “Time is just one factor that can be adjusted. If I’m a nurse, and my team is understaffed, reducing my hours won’t change anything. Improving the quality of life at work can depend on a number of aspects including hiring more nurses, boosting salaries, or reducing work hours.” The factors to adjust are different for each job and include the type of work involved, staffing levels and funding.

The eight-hour day wasn’t put in place because it had a positive impact on quality of life or because it allowed copious amounts of work to be accomplished. So what is there to prevent us from questioning our relationship to work, our ways of working and our expectations within the limits of what’s possible? Nothing. We can redefine our relationship with time outside of dominant work models – and maybe that means having afternoons free or doing a bit of work on vacation.

Translated by Lorraine Posthuma

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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