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The 40-hour Work Week: What is it and How Has it Evolved Now?

By Preethi Jathanna

Senior Writer for HR and Remote Work

40-hour Work Week

A classic question that comes up during an interview or forms a part of any job description is what kind of working hours or work pattern does the company follow. In 90% cases, the answer is a 40-hour week pattern. Ever wondered though, how this eight-hour work day or 40-hour work week became a norm for corporates and businesses? You have to thank labor organizers and Henry Ford of Ford Motors for that. Piqued your interest? 

Read on to find out more about how the 40 hour work week evolved in the 19th century, adapted itself in the modern world and what the pros and cons are of this work model. 

1. What is The 40-hour Work Week History?

What is The 40-hour Work Week History

Are you wondering - what is the 40 hour work week and how it became a norm? The 40-hour work week history talks about its evolution during the Industrial Revolution that began around 1760 at a time when factory and mill workers were clocking in almost 16 hours each day leaving them with hardly any breathing space to do anything else post work.

Post the advent of the industrial unrest, socialist Robert Owen raised the demand for a ten-hour day in 1810. By 1817 he had created the slogan, "8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep, 8 hours for what-we-will." in support of the 40-hour work week.

In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant issued a declaration that promised eight-hour workdays for public sector employees. This announcement further encouraged workers in the private-sector to demand the same rights. 

In 1926, Henry Ford, Founder of the Ford Motor Company, took a path-breaking decision to implement the 40-hour week with no change in pay, after he realized that it reduced turnover and boosted worker efficiency.

In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, with the stipulation that all companies were to pay overtime to employees who put in more than 44 hours per week. This was amended two year later to restrict a work week to 40 hours. 

 1940: The 40-hour work week became U.S. law.

2. How Effective is a 40-hour Work Week?

In today’s age of the “side hustle”, where everyone is doing something on the side besides work, whether the 40-hour week is truly effective remains debatable. Considering that there’s much more in one’s daily routine to complete beyond the typical eight-hour working day, it ends up looking like a frenetic rush to the finish line, each day to complete all other non-work tasks.

While the 40-hour work week schedule may have been the radical solution back in the 19th century, the question is whether this almost 84-year old concept needs to undergo a makeover.

At a time, when there was more labor-intensive or manual work and no relevant technology, the 40-hour work week model worked well. Thus, hours were calculated on the basis of physical capabilities. However, post the advent of technology from the Internet to 5G and smart devices, there’s so much that can be accomplished easily and flexibly. Work need not be confined to a specific set of straight hours or even physical locations anymore.

Studies have indicated that employees who end working less than 40 hours a week are healthier, happier and more productive. Working beyond 40-hours a week makes you less productive. Through trials conducted in 2015 and 2019, public sector employees were directed to reduce their work hours by five hours per week without affecting their pay. The findings of this experiment made researchers in Iceland declare the trials of shorter workweeks an “overwhelming success,”. The shortened 36-hour workweeks instead of 40-hour work weeks led to increase productivity and lesser reports of worker burn-outs

Today, an increasing number of small, medium and even bigger companies are already adopting shorter working weeks to leverage the benefits of a changing work model.

3. Pros and Cons of a 40-hour Work Week

3.1. Pros of 40-hour Work Week

  • Establishes a Set Routine for Employees

Employees can plan and schedule long-term engagements or activities easily when they know what their work schedules are much in advance. A 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. job from Monday through Friday can give them plenty of room to decide what they need to do on weekends and around their work weeks.

  • Encourages Accountability

A consistent 40-hour work week schedule is a great way to ensure employee accountability especially for those who may be slow-starters or procrastinators. When you know there’s a specific time to begin, get work and wrap up, it’s much easier to stay on track and not go on the slow burner. This way employees have lesser chances of missing deadlines and slacking on daily targets.

  • Fosters Effective Communication

With a 40-hour work week schedule in place, employees can hone their communication skills and collaborate easily on team projects in the same place.  It’s much easier to have 1-on-1 discussions to quickly resolve issues or queries with stipulated time frames. It also goes a long way in team building and nurturing productivity. Business owners can also manage their employees and stay updated on their progress easily.

3.2. Cons of a 40-hour Work Week

  • Creates Time Inefficiencies

Employees who have to multi-task may find these straight hours restrictive in terms of trying to do it all. This in turn leads to hurried work, low-quality output, increased stress and decline in productivity. Additional tasks such as answering calls and mails, can also add to the volume of existing work that needs to be completed.  This negatively impacts the work environment and also work relationships

  • Exposure to Mini Distractions

Working eight hours a day, week-on-week calls for frequent breaks through each day. This leads to a reduction in the actual work time an employee utilizes. Coffee breaks, impromptu meets, team activities can eat away into the working hours. Employees end up working beyond their eight hours in order to make up for lost time, feel more stressed out and have lower productivity levels.

  • Leads to Unhealthy Work-Life Balance

A 40-hours work week is now being associated with a poorer work-life imbalance. Striving to meet productivity goals consistently or at the same pace across 8 hours a day can be unrealistic and exhausting. Echoing this voice, a 2017 study was conducted on work-hour thresholds and it was found that workers’ mental health began to decline when they put in over 39 hours per week. The negative implications were considerably more for women who also had non-work related responsibilities such housework, child care, and other activities. This left them with minimal or no time at all for any personal care leading to heightened levels of stress and less productivity overall.  

4. What Does a 40-hour Work Week Look Like?

While there can be variations in the time frames of a 40-hour week in days, the most common and classic full-time work schedule is the 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, Monday through Friday, which works up to a 40-hour work week schedule. Full-time work schedules typically have the standard shift across most industries, but certain ones such as retail may vary. The total number of working hours still total up to 40 hour per week.

5. 6 Best Alternatives to a 40-hour Work Week

Alternatives to a 40-hour work week offer flexibility and the freedom to work around schedules. As opposed to the old-fashioned work models,  many traditional employers are now offering flexible 40-hour work week schedule to support their employees as well. Here are six best alternatives to the 40-hour work week.

5.1. Flex Time

When using a flexi-time work model,  both employees and employers can work on mutually acceptable working hours and days to set a pattern. Based on the company’s policies, employees may be asked to dedicate a fixed slot of time through the day or minimum hours at a certain part of the day based on operational requirements. This is usually adjustable as well so workarounds can be managed in case any adhoc non-work commitments arise.

5.2. Telecommuting 

Another great alternative to the 40-hour work model is telecommuting. This option allows employees to work remotely instead of commuting to an office. Telecommuting is usually offered to employees on a part-time or regular interval that may include a day or two days in a week or month.

5.3. Remote Work

The remote work model works by allowing employees to work entirely on a remote basis from anywhere in the world or in compatible geographical time zones for smooth operations. This is especially helpful for employees whose spouses may have transferable jobs or for those employees who wish to relocate. Here, effective communication channels and digital tools play a pivotal role in ensuring seamless functioning.

5.4. 32-hour Work Week

Known as the 4-day work week as well, this model of work lets employees work for eight hours for four day per week. This is based on the assumption that the type of work being does not require five days and that workers were more productive following this 32-hour work pattern.  

5.5. 9/80 Work Schedule

When incorporating a 9/80 work schedule, employees usually work one 8-hour day or half-day and four 9-hour days which is then followed over the next week by four 9-hour days and one day off on day five. This work cycle works every two weeks and repeats itself.

5.6. Compressed Work Week

When working in a compressed work week model, employees work regular 40-hours across ‘compressed’ days which could be four instead of five. Here employees can balance workloads easily and accrue an extra day’s leave as well. This model is typically used in manufacturing, education, retail and mining industries.

6. FAQs

6.1. Does a 40 hour work week include lunch?

Lunch time is not considered work as it is unpaid time taken off the 40 hour work week schedule. So one hour of lunch time is commonly given in addition to the stipulated eight hours of work per day making it a total of nine hours daily per week.

6.2. What is the 40 hour work week?

A 40 hours work week is considered the standard amount of time set for the employees to work. It's a global norm that employees are required to work 8 hours per day for 5 days a week - making the total 40 hours work per week. 

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