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Why do we work 40 hours a week?

It’s not because any studies have been done to show that this is the optimal amount of time an employee can be productive. It’s not because any research shows that 9am is the best time to start the work day, and 5pm is the best time to end the work day. And it’s not because as human beings we are wired in a certain way that restricts us from functioning at work outside of the Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm norm.

The reason we work 40 hours a week in the U.S. is because before the 1930s, there were no labor laws to protect employees from being forced to work indefinitely, every day of the week. In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was enacted by Congress to protect workers from the back-breaking conditions they had been laboring under. It established a minimum wage of 25 cents per hour and a 40-hour workweek, plus the potential for 4-hours of overtime.  The original draft of the FLSA put forward by Senator Hugo Black (Dem-Alabama) in 1932 actually targeted a 30-hour workweek,  not a 40-hour week. Black’s aim was to distribute labor among the millions of Americans who had lost their jobs in the depression, but the dramatic difference between the limitless labor hours they had been entitled to and a seemingly-paltry 30 hours encountered too much resistance from employers at the time.

The concept of a 40-hour week actually dated 120 years earlier, to 1817 when British social reformer Robert Owen started campaigning for a workday limited to eight hours of labor, and balanced by eight hours of recreation and eight hours of rest—a profound improvement on the working conditions of the time. His cause was taken up more broadly in the U.S. by the Chicago labor movement in the 1860s and beyond. But it took until 1938 for the U.S. government to formally recognize change.

Since 1938, the FLSA has been amended a number of times in various ways, ensuring that the minimum wage adjusts for inflation (although many would say not by enough), extending coverage to some farm workers, and banning pay discrepancies based on gender (still yet to be realized in practice). But while the workplace landscape is dramatically different today that it was in 1938 due to technological innovations and demographic shifts, the basic 40-hour structure has yet to be modified.

Do we want to wait another 120, 80, or even 20 years for change to come again?

Why do we work from 9am-5pm?

In actual fact, 9am-5pm is more of a conventional term (made most famous, perhaps, by Dolly Parton’s anthem of 1980) than a conventional practice.  Business hours often start somewhere between 8am and 9am, and often end somewhere between 4pm and 6pm. Of course, shift workers have different schedules altogether, and many employees work significantly longer days.

The FLSA doesn’t limit people from working more than 40 hours, but it does require certain workers to be paid at overtime rates for hours above and beyond 40.  These workers are considered “non-exempt” from the FLSA overtime requirements. Other workers do not need to be paid overtime and are considered “exempt” from the overtime requirements. Classification of exempt vs. non-exempt is typically based on duties (exempt positions generally have higher levels of responsibility and higher salaries).  Since many employers don’t want or can’t afford to pay overtime, work hours for non-exempt employees have come to fall within a standard time-frame of 9am-ish-5pm-ish, give or take.

On the other hand, exempt employees may find the idea of a 40-hour-a-week job a welcome respite from the 50, 60, or more hours their employers expect them to be putting in a week. The U.S. Department of Labor makes it clear that at the federal level, there is “no limit on the number of hours employees 16 years or older may work in any workweek.” But just because the government won’t intervene, isn’t it worth considering whether common sense should?

Is There a Better Way?

For some people, the regularity of the typical workplace schedule is the perfect fit. But others struggle every day to conform to what have begun to feel like arbitrary rules.

Men and women with young children, people taking care of aging parents or sick relatives, and people who are managing a personal illness almost certainly find themselves constantly having to choose between taking care of their loved ones or themselves, and keeping their jobs.

But this isn’t just a family or care-taking issue.  There’s a huge variety of reasons why people might long for more workplace flexibility, including:

  • People who work in industries with defined seasonal, monthly, or weekly work fluctuations, where it might make sense for them to work 60 hours one week, and 20 hours another
  • People who think best late at night, and can’t focus on anything at 9 o’clock in the morning
  • People who think best in the early morning, and are distracted and tired by 5 o’clock in the afternoon
  • People who want to be part of the workforce but for only a smaller portion of hours per week, in order to accommodate other hobbies or passions or pursuits
  • People who want to exercise regularly but would prefer to work early or late to have time off for the gym during the day
  • People who know that solving a problem sometimes requires time away from it
  • People who are happy to work any number of hours per week, but at fluctuating levels according to the work that needs to get done

For these people, Monday-Friday from 9am-5pm just doesn’t make sense. Is it possible for the modern workplace to accommodate their needs, and still get the work done—or even get it done better? Read more about organizations working to increase flexibility in the workplace. Get Involved.