Working Hard or Just Working? Redefining the 9 to 5

We leave work tied to our phones for emails that come through before the next day. Candles burn at both ends as we try to fit in a few more projects. And if we’re starting a new business, the hours never stop.

So why do we keep hearing that the standard American work week is 40 hours?

Americans often work more than this. And entrepreneurs work an average of 63 percent longer than their employer-worker counterparts.

But what happens when we—entrepreneurs or not—put in all those extra hours? Research shows a decrease in overall productivity connected with additional hours worked.

Which is to say that the more we work, the less we accomplish in each additional hour.

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In Germany, employees work, on average, 35 hours per week, with much more paid vacation than in the United States. Part of the Deutsches Arbeitsethos, the German work ethic, is that when they are at work, they are doing only their work—not checking Facebook or scheduling oil changes. The culture is goal-oriented, with high expectations for focus.

A Swedish city is currently undertaking an experiment where one group works six hours per day, five days per week, while the control group works eight hours per day, five days per week, for the same pay. Researchers are hoping to identify which group was more productive overall during this trial year.

So, what is the future of the American 40-hour work week?

Older research shows that in some of those especially hectic weeks of project completion, workers are able to sustain longer hours and remain productive for a short period of time. The trick is to avoid living in a constant state of burnout.

Entrepreneurs make their own schedules.

As new businesses start up, entrepreneurs should take into consideration the benefits of flexible schedules for new employees. Maybe the typical 9-to-5 schedule is becoming obsolete. Maybe the answer to containing our working hours to the 40-hour work week is to take a lesson from entrepreneurs and do our work as it makes the most sense, rather than traditional hours.

A staggering 69 percent of startups begin in the home.

As flexible hours of jobs have become more popular, so has telecommuting. According to an article in The New York Times, telecommuting has risen by an estimated 79 percent between 2005 and 2012, now representing 2.6 percent of the American workforce.

Further research highlighted that employees who work from home are 13 percent more productive. They were also less likely to quit their jobs.

Can the U.S. develop a work culture that values efficiency over hours worked?

While some believe we will continue to put in more hours, in hopes of outperforming our counterparts, some may remember the 1930 Keynesian essay that predicted that due to technological innovation, the author’s grandchildren wouldn’t need to work more than 15 hours per week.

With American employees, the decline of working hours has not yet begun. American entrepreneurs mirror their employed counterparts in working excessive hours to demonstrate their commitment to their work.

A recent survey by Gallup found U.S. adults working full-time average 47 hours per week—nearly a full workday more than the customary work week. This is especially prevalent among U.S. salaried employees versus hourly employees.

If the United States can manage to adapt work cultures to a new norm that leaves behind the conventional 9-to-5 job, and allows greater flexibility of employees schedules, by allowing telecommuting and flexible hours, we may see increased employee engagement (as I discussed in a previous post), increased productivity, and decreased turnover.

Some advocates for the shorter work week think that the goal for entrepreneurs should be lives where they work less and earn more. With increasing trends in workers’ hours, it does not look promising that we will be moving to the 15-hour work week anytime soon.

But, perhaps we can learn from our international counterparts, and even entrepreneurs, to help establish a more efficient work culture, and take solace in the research that we will be at our best if we give ourselves a break.


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