For many entrepreneurs, the eight-hour working day has felt like an irrefutable fact of business. Even in those industries where the traditional nine to five isn’t particularly applicable, such as within service and hospitality, it’s taken for granted that a full-time employee will be present at work for around 40 hours a week. Increasingly, however, it’s being suggested that by giving staff fewer working hours (without reducing their pay), businesses can garner advantages such as greater productivity and lower absenteeism.

This has led some to ask whether it’s time we move on from the eight-hour working day. The 40-hour working week was a construct determined over a hundred years ago, a time when our technological and social landscape looked quite different. If we compare today’s working world with that between 1910 and 1920, we can see just how much things have changed.

  • In 1920, 27% of the US working population labored in farm occupations, compared to only 1% today.
  • 31% of non-farm jobs were in manufacturing. Only 9.6% of all workers were service workers, and 5.3% were clerical. (All statistics can be found here)
  • Today, manufacturing work only accounts for 8% of jobs.
  • The proportion of people working from home is at a record high.
  • General office clerks, cashiers and salespeople, admin assistants, waiters and waitresses are all now within the top ten most common occupations in the US.

Perhaps the most profound changes can be seen in the movement of the population from rural to urban living spaces, the growth of white-collar jobs, decline in manufacturing and rise of retail work. This illuminates the fact that the 40-hour work week was determined with production lines and farm labour in mind, not office work or people-facing retail roles.

Shorter Working Days – What Are the Advantages?

If we consider shorter working days (6 hours, but without a break, is commonly discussed as a possibility) from the perspective of profitability, there are some arguments to suggest it would be a sensible choice. This may go without saying, but studies show that when people are concentrating on tasks over a sustained period of time, they become more mentally fatigued and their reaction time slows the longer they work.

The result of this is a reduction in productivity and efficiency as the day goes on. One study indicated that UK office workers are actually only productive for less than three hours of an eight-hour working day, leading some to conclude that only having 6 hours within which employees must complete their normal daily workload will sharpen focus and may even lead people to achieve more in less time.

Perhaps the biggest argument concerning the 6-hour work day is staff wellbeing. During the industrial revolution, it was not unusual for people to work up to 16 hours a day – without a day off – in factories that “needed” to be running as much as possible. When workers fought for labor rights and the owning classes acknowledged the brutality of making people work for so long, it became apparent that factories didn’t have to enforce these kinds of hours in order to be viable – leading to a profound shift in thinking.

Henry Ford instigated the 40-hour working week amongst his staff in order to boost productivity, and it might be that business could do the same again with an even shorter working week. An experiment in Sweden showed that nurses who worked a 6-hour day were less stressed, more physically active and had more energy. There was also a 4.7 percent reduction in total sick days taken, and a noticeable reduction in absenteeism. It’s thought that shorter work days could reduce health costs.

What Are the Disadvantages?

Unfortunately, because businesses would need more staff in order to cover the same amount of hours, there would also be associated costs for many organisations who wanted to implement a 6-hour work day. There are industries where you simply need people on the ground – such as restaurants and shops – in order to maintain opening hours, and reducing staff hours but not wages will inevitably make payroll costs rise.

This being said, the same does not necessarily apply in a office setting. In a situation where people have an expected daily workload, staff could negotiate amongst themselves who takes earlier or later 6-hour shifts in order to cover the whole working day (so clients and other businesses always have people they can contact within normal working hours). This leaves them free to complete their workload in the time allotted. As an employer, you can even specify that workers stay for the extra 2 hours should their normal workload be incomplete – ensuring that you do not lose any employee output.

If you are an employer in a sector where the 6-hour workday seems untenable, you can gain some of the advantages through other wellbeing initiatives. Paying a living wage, having a cap on overtime, not contacting staff on their days off, providing healthy lunches, enforcing a good work/life balance – it will all help to improve productivity and wellbeing amongst staff, while reducing the outlays caused by sickness and absenteeism.