Why don't we have 30-hour workweeks?

No other industrialized country puts in as many hours

Stock photo of workers from Detroit on Aug. 11, 2015.  Bloomberg photo by Tim Galloway.
Stock photo of workers from Detroit on Aug. 11, 2015. Bloomberg photo by Tim Galloway.

When Americans think of work, we often think about 9-to-5 shifts, 15-minute breaks, a minimum wage of $7.25 or a 40-hour workweek.

But where did that last figure come from? Why have Americans come to accept a much more intensive 40-hour workweek than other countries? And what would happen if the standard workweek was 30 hours?

WHO CAME UP WITH THE 40-HOUR WEEK?

The 40-hour workweek results from simple math: Eight-hour days at five days a week have long been the American standard.

We owe the notion to Welsh industrialist and labor rights activist Robert Owen, who famously split the day into “eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”

Owen’s idea didn’t catch on in his native Europe but was adopted as a slogan in the post-Civil War United States.

A NEW DEAL

By the time the Great Depression rolled around, America knew it had a problem with exploitative working hours. In fact, President Roosevelt’s administration sowed the first seeds of America’s 40-hour workweek in 1933 under the New Deal economic policy.

An early component of the National Industrial Recovery Act — which aimed to raise wages and grow jobs to stimulate the economy — it resulted in employers signing 2.3 million agreements to limit workweeks to between 35 and 40 hours and also pay a fair minimum wage.

A STANDARD IS BORN

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Three years later, the Public Contracts Act of 1936 was on the table, calling for government contractors to officially adopt the eight-hours-per-day, 40-hours-per-week standard.

The bill met with congressional resistance and was eventually simplified, then heavily amended and finally signed into law in October 1938 by President Roosevelt as the now-iconic Fair Labor Standards Act. The act officially limited workweeks to 44 hours.

TODAY’S CHANGING LANDSCAPE

Full-time workers put in 8.56 hours per day or 42.8 hours per week, according to 2016 annual averages from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, changing work landscapes mean that “the average” is also changing. And depending on the job or industry, it’s not unusual to see some people put in 50-hour or even 60-hour workweeks.

Contract labor is also on the rise. Many people are opting to work as much as possible through freelance, temporary and “gig economy” jobs, like driving for Uber or Lyft.

“Contract workers work 100 hours per week with no overtime,” a University of California at Santa Barbara history professor told CNBC in a 2017 article. “Today, the eight-hour work day is falling apart.”

DO we PUT IN MORE HOURS?

To put it shortly, despite paying a lower minimum wage than many countries, no other industrialized nation on the planet puts in more hours than the United States.

Americans put more hours on the clock than their peers in England, France, Australia, Germany, Canada, Italy, Norway, Japan and other nations, according to 2016 data from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

A 2016 study published by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics sheds even more light on how the American workweek stacks up to Europe. It reports that Americans work roughly 25 percent more hours than Europeans. That adds up to one hour more each weekday, or 260 hours more per year.

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On the flip side, the U.S. ranks 22 out of the 36 countries on the list in terms of workweek hours. Chile, Greece, Korea and Costa Rica stand at the top of the list.

However, no one works harder than Mexico. There, labor laws cap the workweek at 48 hours rather than 44.

AMERICANS FEEL OVERWORKED

There are ways to maintain a better work-life balance, even just based on your career choice. But in a 2017 poll conducted by ABC News, 26 percent of Americans still reported feelings of working too hard.

Compared to the 13 percent who responded the same way to a 1960 Harris Poll, ABC’s figure indicates that Americans are feeling more overworked than ever.

WHY THE DISPARITY?

In a 2016 interview, Ben Steverman of Bloomberg News shed light on the difference between the American and European workweek.

“If you look at the 1970s, Americans and Europeans were working about the same amount of hours,” he said. “So how do you explain that? Something’s changed in the U.S.”

Steverman speculates that higher taxes give European workers less incentive to put in long hours, while more powerful labor unions act as watchdogs for their well-being. Likewise, the promise of a pension leads to early retirement for many Europeans.

THE DOWNSIDE

As expected, burnout and fatigue are major drawbacks to longer workweeks. According to a 2017 study published in Social Science and Medicine, “long work hours erode health.”

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More specifically, one of the study’s authors — Dr. Huong Dinh of the Australian National University — writes that there’s a “tipping point of 39 hours for an average person, beyond which their mental health starts to decline.” This results in everything from decreased productivity to increased health risks.

The Harvard Business Review sums it up: “There’s a large body of research that suggests that regardless of our reasons for working long hours, overwork does not help us. For starters, it doesn’t seem to result in more output. ... Considerable evidence shows that overwork is not just neutral — it hurts us and the companies we work for.”

THE UPSIDE

While the potential positives of a 40-hour workweek aren’t quite as scientific as the drawbacks, they do exist.

The sweet spot for hours often boils down to the person and the job in question. The daily productivity of an artist or athlete, for instance, might diminish after just a few hours of concentrated work.

But for a truck driver or factory worker, more hours might have a direct correlation to greater productivity.

“People push themselves to the point where they will have problems,” K. Anders Ericsson, the co-author of “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise,” told Healthline. However, “if you have somebody who loves what they are doing, would you want to limit that person?” he added.

On the subject of longer workweeks, the idea of overtime hours inevitably comes into play — and they might actually have some economic benefits.

In a 2015 column of the Monthly Labor Review, the Bureau of Labor Statistics writes: “Many firms view overtime as a useful means of dealing with unanticipated economic events, including fluctuations in product demand and in rates of absenteeism, as well as breakdowns in production or the organizational workflow. Overtime work designed to accommodate unforeseen, usually short-term events is likely to remain a permanent feature of the labor market scene.”

30-HOUR WORKWEEKS

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Because so few American companies have adopted a 30-hour workweek standard, it’s difficult to predict how a widespread 30-hour workweek might affect the U.S. business landscape.

However, we can take a look at concrete results from those who’ve tried it, such as numerous Swedish companies that reported the results of their 30-hour-per-week experiments to the New York Times in 2016.

From tech start-ups to hospitals, the practice increased employee satisfaction and productivity. Additionally, companies reported everything from reduced illnesses to doubled revenues.

Maybe this is why Amazon started testing a 30-hour workweek structure in 2016. In the experiment, select team members were to receive the same benefits as full-time employees but only work 30 hours per week and receive 75 percent of the pay full-time workers earn.

It’s unclear how Amazon’s initiative played out. And only time will tell if it becomes the first step toward creating a new 30-hour workweek standard in the United States.

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