Rethinking the 8-hour Workday

Lately, Japan has been under fire for its overtime culture, which is blamed for hundreds of cases of karoshi — death by overwork — each year. Karoshi deaths can be caused by heart attacks, strokes, and also suicides. In response to his, Japan’s government has been trying to encourage firms to let employees leave early and take more vacations. This phenomenon can be seen as an extreme case owing to Japan’s decades-old work culture. For most city dwellers who are forced to get used to powering through the mandated “9 to 5” in an office, the 8-hour workday is accepted as a gold standard.

In many other countries, working overtime on ordinary work days is common and often done without any extra wages. And although taking frequent breaks is good for your productivity, focus and creativity, Human Resource Departments often do not encourage it. With extra time spent commuting to and from work, one hardly gets enough time to exercise, prepare healthy meals, or spend time with loved ones.

How the 8-hour workday came to be

The 8-hour workday wasn’t achieved simply through negotiation and peaceful protests. Workers’ unions and labor rights activists have struggled despite violent suppression – one famous example is the 1886 Haymarket Riot in Chicago, in which police opened fire on a crowd of 80,000 demonstrators after a bomb exploded in the crowd.

The 8-hour day movement or 40-hour movement had its origins during the Industrial Revolution, where mass production in large factories transformed working life. The average workweek for full-time manufacturing employees in those days was around 80-100 hours. Although New Zealand and Australia succeeded in achieving an 8-hour day for skilled workers in the 1840s and 1850s, most employees had to wait to the early and mid twentieth century for the standard to be widely achieved through the industrialized world through legislative action.

Managing energy, not time

However, how many hours we work every day isn’t as relevant to our productivity as managing our energy – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. Tony Schwartz, founder of The Energy Project, which helps companies fuel sustainable high performance by better meeting the needs of their employees, says, “Manage your energy, not your time.” It’s time to rethink how we work and how much time we should spend in the office.

In an experiment to see what habits set their most productive employees apart, social networking company Draugiem Group used time-tracking productivity app DeskTime and found that employees with the highest productivity surprisingly didn’t put in longer hours. They published their findings in the DeskTime blog: “The most productive people work for 52 minutes, then break for 17 minutes. The employees with the highest productivity ratings in fact for the most part don’t even work 8 hour days. Turns out the secret to retaining the highest level of productivity over the span of a work day is not working longer, but working smarter with frequent breaks.”

On breaks, completely take yourself out of the working zone and dedicate yourself to not working. The human body isn’t built to sit in front of the computer for 8 hours straight, so take a nap or a walk, do some exercises, read a book, grab some healthy snacks, play an online casino game on the phone, or talk to colleagues. Another strategy to manage energy is to schedule meetings strategically. Meetings, which often take up a chunk of our working day, can actually serve as a mental break from mentally-intensive tasks.

The 6-hour workday movement

Research done by technology startups Filimundus and Brath in Sweden has also shown that employees are happier, have higher energy levels and are more productive with a 6-hour workday. Both companies say that the benefits of a 6-hour working week also extend to their profits and growth.

When Maria Brath, CEO of a Swedish company that specializes in SEO for Scandinavia, instituted the 6-hour workday, many were skeptical and commented that it cannot possibly be profitable. The company’s revenue continued to double each year. The changes are also happening in the Swedish public sector, with nurses at a government-run retirement home switching to a six-hour day for the same pay.

“I think the eight-hour workday is not as effective as one would think. To stay focused on a specific work task for eight hours is a huge challenge. In order to cope, we mix in things and pauses to make the workday more endurable. At the same time we are finding it hard to manage our private life outside of work. We want to spend more time with our families, we want to learn new things or exercise more. My impression now is that it is easier to focus more intensely on the work that needs to be done and you have the stamina to do it and still have energy left when leaving the office,” Linus Feldt, CEO of Stockholm-based app developer Filimindus told Fast Company.

“The biggest response that I couldn’t foresee was the energy level I felt with my colleagues. They were happy leaving the office and happy coming back the next day. They didn’t feel drained or fatigued. That has also helped the work groups to work better together now, when we see less conflicts and arguments. People are happier.”

Author and researcher Alex Pang goes as far as to say, “four hours is actually the optimal amount of time to spend per day if your work is creative in nature, or requires a notable degree of thinking and concentration… if your job requires imagination, ingenuity, and above-average mental focus, you may be better off limiting that work to four hours per day, as opposed to eight or more.”

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