Work, work, work

Experts reveal the ideal number of hours you should work each week

A sociologist, a management professor, and an economist explain why achieving the ideal work week is no simple hack.

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All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, but how much work is right for Jack anyways?

Like Jack, most of us have to work to survive. As of December 2019, there were 158,803,000 people employed in America. About 56 million of them are millennials, making the generation the largest age group currently in the workforce. To make all this work... well... work, workers strive to strike a work-life balance — a delicate equilibrium between work and everything else in your life. But how many of hours you should work per week to achieve that balance is a matter of hot scientific debate.

In 1817, labor activist Robert Owen stated the ideal work-life balance would be “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” Owen's recommendations have played out, for the most part — a standard, full-time work week is 40 hours per week, or 8 hours per day, Monday through Friday. This working week is a legal invention dating to the Industrial Revolution, enshrined in the Fair Labor Standards Act — before the law went into force, people routinely worked up to 16 hours a day.

But as the economy changes as a result of globalization and new modes of labor, the working week has started to shift, too. Hours are up in the air and Monday-to-Friday is anathema to some. And despite labor laws designed to protect people at work, there has been a rise in burnout, especially among younger workers.

As a result, experts are re-opening the debate over just how long an ideal work week should be — and the experiments have already begun.

The Swedish government tried cutting work days down to six hours to increase productivity, for example — and has had promising results. Some Singaporean firms purposefully end the work day at 3:30 pm to allow employees to enjoy cultural activities in the afternoon.

But is there a formula for how many hours should you work in a day? And how many days should you work in a week?

Inverse asked a sociologist, a management professor, and an economist for the inside scoop on the perfect work week. Our reporting reveals an inconvenient truth: An ideal work week might not exist.

One size fits nobody

Christopher Barnes, associate professor at University of Washington, tells Inverse that there is no good answer to the question of how many hours a person should work ideally.

“I’m not sure anyone can give you the exact answer you want."

"What we really want to know is what is the right number of hours to work. But we don’t really just have a tangible number we can throw out there to everyone,” he says.

“That’s partly because the science hasn’t really advanced to that point, and partly because there are many contextual nuances which would alter that number anyway."

Those 'contextual nuances' are the bigger problem, he says. Essentially, each person is different, with different life pressures and different abilities — which makes putting a number of hours on work hard to do.

“What makes the biggest difference is whether we find work meaningful.”

John Pencavel, an economist at Stanford University, agrees.

“There is no ideal work week. What does ideal mean? From the perspective of a worker? Employer?” Pencavel tells Inverse.

“I don’t think one can say for all workers, all employers, even if we could define ideal, even if we could agree," he says. The type of work, the firm you work for, the employer's expectations, and the worker's personal circumstances may all make a difference.

"There’s not one size that fits all.”

Here is what scientists do know about the ideal length for the work week.

Quality before quantity

Work intensity and the social environment of the job are both key factors, Daiga Kamerade-Hanta, a work and employment sociologist from the University of Salford, tells Inverse. The value of the work that is being done also matters, she says.

“What matters is not the number of working hours, not the quantity, but the quality of the job makes a huge difference to our mental health and wellbeing,” she says. Kamerade-Hanta is currently working on a study investigating this question.

“What makes the biggest difference is whether we find work meaningful.”

There is such a thing as working too little

In a 2019 study, Kamerade-Hanta and her colleagues found that people's measures of well-being don't change much whether they worked so few as 8 hours in a week or as many as 48 hours.

But interestingly, they did find that some work does make a positive difference. Even a very small amount of work, between one and eight hours, was enough to "generate significant mental health and well-being benefits" among people who were previously out of work, the study found. The results suggest that we do need to do some work to get the greatest mental-health benefits — but it still leaves the question of just how much open to debate.

Working too much is bad for you

One thing is for sure, there is such a thing as working too much.

“Currently it's accepted that the standard working week is around 40 hours depending on the country. We also know from a large body of research that working over 48 hours is generally bad for an average employee,” Kamerade-Hanta says.

"The more time we spend at work the less time we have for other important things in life."

Research suggests that working excessively long hours — usually this means more than 45 a week — is detrimental to your health, physical and mental, in many ways. Overworking is linked to risk of heart problems from having, including having an irregular pulse, developing acute myocardial infarction, and coronary heart disease. It is also linked to higher risk of stroke. Other studies suggest that long work hours may be associated with diabetes and hypertension.

Overtime — working longer hours than scheduled — is also linked to a host of problems. A 2012 study in more than 2,000 British civil servants found that those who worked overtime had higher rates of depression. And a 2017 study in 429 people found that those who worked longer hours had higher incidences of depression, anxiety, and poor sleep quality. The dreaded worker's condition, burnout, was also linked to longer working hours in a 1996 study conducted in Japan. The research also suggested that longer work hours are linked to poor quality of life and poorer lifestyle choices, which could compound any health or mental health problems stemming from over-working.

Your productivity has a plateau

Productivity and creativity tends to plateau after a certain amount of hours. In a 2014 study, Pencavel and his colleagues found that “long weekly hours and long daily hours do not necessarily yield high output.” Productivity per hour falls after a person works more than 50 hours a week, they found.

After 55, productivity actually drops so much that it’s pointless to keep working. In fact, working 70 hours or 55 would result in pretty much the same level of productiveness, they found.

It makes little sense for employers to create tension by pressing for longer work days so their employees can get more work done, Pencavel says.

"It pays the employer to have a conscientious, productive worker and the things that make those workers conscientious and productive help the employers bottom line," he says.

Working too much harms society

Long work hours and a workaholic spirit may hurt society on a larger level, too.

People who work too long have "little time to engage in other activities outside of work, including spending time with their families or spending time on volunteering or looking after themselves, like doing some physical exercise or eating healthily,” Kamerade-Hanta says.

“Civic participation is very important to maintain democracy. And if people are working much, they simply don't have time to participate in civic life," she says.

“Different ways of working and living are possible.”

But shortening the work week by a day may be of some wider benefit, she says. A four-day work week would mean a drop in commuters on the fifth day of the week — potentially benefiting the environment, she says.

At the same time, a shorter work week might benefit certain demographics, like the elderly or small children. Working-age carers would have more time to care for them at home, relieving pressure on public resources and private care.

“Working too long causes bigger implications. The more time we spend at work the less time we have for other important things in life," she says.

So how long should you work?

A good rule of thumb is to take at least one day off a week to not do any work at all — a seven day work week truly stifles productivity, Pencavel says. He would also like to see more experimentation on the part of employers as to how they structure their work weeks.

“I’d like to see more employers undertake their own experiments within the firm,” Pencavel says. “Try for a year, a three-day weekend, and see what difference it makes to their bottom line. It pays the employer to experiment with different work hours.”

Kamerade-Hanta agrees. “As a society together, we probably have to think a little bit more how our working lives look like and be more imaginative how we would like our work week to look like in general.” She believes that our thinking is often limited by what seems possible, instead of how we really would like our organization of work in society look like.

“Different ways of working and living are possible," she says.

Aside from changing up hours, there are other hacks you could try to make your work day better.

Using prioritization techniques, for example, combating the source of procrastination, or even drinking nootropic coffees — workers all over the world are trying all sorts of remedies to get their productivity levels up and their stress levels down.

If you want to learn more about the best ways to work, Inverse writes a weekly series about how to work better called Strategy.

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