What We Forgot About the 40-Hour Workweek

March 26, 2012 in Daily Bulletin

In what is one of the best examples of clear, concise, and well organized writing in recent memory, Sara Robinson’s argument for why employers, employees, and society as a whole would benefit from a return to a 40-hour workweek is fascinating. In the article she seeks to answer: “How did we get to the 40-hour week in the first place? How did we lose it? And are there compelling bottom-line business reasons that we should bring it back?” The extensive answer includes:

  • It wasn’t unions that drove the push for the 40-hour work week – it was, in fact, employers. Research showed that it was almost impossible to get more than 40 hours of productive work from an employee, so employing them any longer than that actually ended up cutting profits.
  • Moreover accidents that shut-down production lines and opened businesses up to lawsuits were also more likely to occur because of overworked employees.
  • After World War 2 though, as the knowledge economy grew, people assumed that the 40-hour productivity phenomena was limited to industrial workers and did not apply to white-collar employees who were becoming more common.
  • The problem was compounded by the rise of Silicon Valley and a generation of workers who saw their work as their life. The “geek” stereotype that includes bad personal hygiene and health as well as limited understanding of relationships is based in part on what the first generation of Silicon Valley employees were actually like.
  • The meteoric rise of Valley companies convinced other businesses to try to create the same passion. Workplaces suddenly had gyms, restaurants, supermarkets and child-care services. The implication was that your office could take the place of your home.
  • However not only are knowledge-sector employees also limited in the amount of hours over which they are productive – for them the limit is lower than for industrial workers. Evidence suggests that individuals have only about six hours of productive mental work in contrast to the eight hours of manual labour that’s within them.

To read the rest of what is, again, an extremely well-written 7-page article, how the original Macintosh team could have had the Mac out a year sooner, the specific circumstances (and associated costs) in which it might be possible to get more than 40 hours of work from an employee, and why the motto of Britain’s 19th century short-work movement might have had it right all along, click here.

Source: AlterNet

Via: Salon