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Reconsidering the 40-hour work week

In 1930, the famous economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that in our modern time, we would only have a 15-hour work week, due to advances in technology and social change. As you know, that didn’t happen.

Currently, 40 hours per week is considered full-time employment. According to Gallup, the average amount of hours worked by hourly employees is 46.7 hours per week (49 for salaried employees). With all of the downsides of working so much, it is time for us to reconsider the work week.

Studies have shown that working as much as we do is not good for our health. Even if we ignore the obviously dangerous jobs like coal mining and logging, work is having long-term effects on people’s health. According to a study conducted by the Annals of Internal Medicine, sitting for more than five hours per day is connected to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. In addition, a study in the journal PLOS ONE on working hours found that working over eight hours a day leads to higher rates of depression.

Spending 40 hours a week at a job means that people are spending a good chunk of their time at their workplace. According to research conducted by the business research group, The Conference Board, the United States has a job satisfaction rate of about 51 percent. This means that a little less than half of the people in the country are not happy with their current work, and yet we insist on making them spend roughly a third of their time there.

If you don’t agree with me, you are probably thinking that even though people don’t like the work and it causes health problems, working the hours we do is necessary for our economy. I do not agree. In fact, I think having people who work this much is limiting our potential.

In Sweden, the government wanted to see what effect a shorter work week would have. Nurses were asked to work six-hour days, and the government paid for the extra two hours they missed per day. They found that the nurses were more productive, healthier and happier.

Other experts argue that shorter hours or a four-day work week would be better for workers. According to research by K. Anders Ericsson, an expert in the psychology of work, people are only able to be productive for about five hours. Anything past that, and productivity flatlines or is adversely affected.

Germany has 35-hour work weeks and 24 days of annual vacation. Their workforce is more productive. Germany has fostered a culture that puts less value on hard work, and yet the people work better. The country values the separation of life and labor. The government was even considering a ban on work-related emails after 6 p.m.

The benefits of less work time exceed just health and productivity. With fewer hours, people can save money on childcare by not needing people to watch their kids so much. People can take more time for leisure. And it can help with employment rates — if fewer hours are worked per person but business hours stay the same, more people will need to be hired. The economy will be even more productive.

The U.S. has always had a strong work ethic. However, if we take a step back and look at the ways that work is affecting us, it is clear we need more time away from work. It will make us happier, healthier, more productive and give us more time to do the things we want to do.

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