The (D)evolution of the 40 Hour Work Week

From Bring back the 40-hour work week – AlterNet –

After WWII, as the GI Bill sent more workers into white-collar jobs, employers at first assumed that the limits that applied to industrial workers probably didn’t apply to knowledge workers. Everybody knew that eight hours a day was pretty much the limit for a guy swinging a hammer or a shovel; but those grey-flannel guys are just sitting at desks. We’re paying them more; shouldn’t we be able to ask more of them?

The short answer is: no. In fact, research shows that knowledge workers actually have fewer good hours in a day than manual laborers do — on average, about six hours, as opposed to eight. It sounds strange, but if you’re a knowledge worker, the truth of this may become clear if you think about your own typical work day. Odds are good that you probably turn out five or six good, productive hours of hard mental work; and then spend the other two or three hours on the job in meetings, answering e-mail, making phone calls and so on. You can stay longer if your boss asks; but after six hours, all he’s really got left is a butt in a chair. Your brain has already clocked out and gone home.

The other thing about knowledge workers is that they’re exquisitely sensitive to even minor sleep loss. Research by the US military has shown that losing just one hour of sleep per night for a week will cause a level of cognitive degradation equivalent to a .10 blood alcohol level. Worse: most people who’ve fallen into this state typically have no idea of just how impaired they are. It’s only when you look at the dramatically lower quality of their output that it shows up. Robinson writes: “If they came to work that drunk, we’d fire them — we’d rightly see them as a manifest risk to our enterprise, our data, our capital equipment, us and themselves. But we don’t think twice about making an equivalent level of sleep deprivation a condition of continued employment.”

Perhaps because I grew up in the Silicon Valley mindset and worked in high-tech (never, say, a retail job or a physical labor job), I never really experienced what a proper 40 hour work week was like. I rarely ever put in what could be construed as “9 to 5” type hours. Or if I did, it was never in a continuous block.

These days, the hours I put in are, quite literally, all over the map: in terms of when I have to do things (some late night and early morning calls/emails) and where I have to do things (regular trips to Israel and other locations). I know that I am by no means unique in this regard, either inside Check Point or outside Check Point.

To be clear, I’m not complaining about my job. I love what I do. But I put in a lot of hours. And I can’t deny I’m probably paying a price for that.

Working smarter clearly does not mean working longer. That said, the traditional 40 hour work week isn’t the solution either, at least for me. I deal with people half-way around the world who work Sunday thru Thursday rather than the more common Monday thru Friday.

Is there hope? I think the answer is being a bit more flexible about when those 40 hours of work occur. It will take employers accepting that people will need to work non-standard hours. It will take employees making sure that, when they are working, they give work their full focus. Likewise, when employees are “not working,” they give “not working” their full focus.

We may never go back to the traditional 40 hour work week, but at least we can bring back some sanity to our lives.






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