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How many hours do we really need to work a week?

Medium shot of a motivated young Asian businesswoman working with laptop, sitting on the bench, against modern corporate buildings in the city, in daytime.
With more pressure to perform, lots of us assume that working longer hours makes sense. Photo: Getty

Many of us work more than we would like to, particularly when taking into account overtime and late night emails that can easily add up. But employees in some industries face working hours that leave little time for anything else, including sleep.

For decades, investment banking and other finance jobs have had a reputation for brutal, extreme working hours. In a leaked presentation last week, junior bankers at Goldman Sachs (GS) said they are still facing “inhumane” conditions at the investment bank, including 100-hour work weeks and “abuse” from colleagues that is seriously affecting their health.

Many people still believe that working longer hours is essential in order to get more done and succeed. In recent years, however, attention has been drawn to the problem of poor mental health at work and burnout - a state of chronic stress experienced by a growing number of workers in different industries.

How many hours we should work a week depends on the job at hand. But is there a magic number we should be aiming for to find a balance between being productive and staying healthy?

Our culture of overwork can be attributed to three key factors. Firstly, we tend to celebrate being “busy” as a status symbol and a sign that our services are in demand.

Secondly, advances in technology mean we are always connected to work, even when we aren’t physically there. And this combination of smartphones and the threat of losing our jobs in the current economic climate has made it difficult not to put in extra hours.

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With more pressure to perform, lots of us assume that working longer hours makes sense.

However, research suggests this isn’t the case. Other studies show people who work less are more likely to get a raise or bonus than those who overwork.

A report from the US-based campaign Project: Time Off discovered that those working longer hours were less likely than their peers to have received a bonus in the last three years. And of course, overwork increases our chances of burnout, poor health and more sick days, too.

The argument for overworking is usually that we have too much to do. However, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests a shorter working day - and therefore working fewer hours a week - makes us more productive.

In 2014, Stanford University economics professor John Pencavel found that productivity per hour declines sharply when a person works more than 50 hours a week. After 55 hours, productivity falls so much that putting in more hours would actually be pointless.

In addition, Pencavel found that those who work up to 70 hours a week are only getting the same amount of work done as those who put in 55 hours.

Although we might sit at our desks for eight hours or more, we are unlikely to be working for this amount of time. In fact, research has shown that the average time we spend working is two hours and 53 minutes each day. So being in the office for longer doesn’t actually mean we are making good use of our time.

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Back in 2015, the Swedish government launched a two-year experiment to explore what would happen if people only worked six hours a day, but were paid for eight. The study took place at the Svartedalens retirement home in Gothenburg, Sweden — and the results were promising.

The nurses working six hours a day were 64% more productive than the control group and took half as much sick time over the course of the year than their eight-hour peers. This gave them more energy when they were at work, which helped them engage more with the residents of the home and provide better care.

Some have also suggested we would benefit from a shift to a four-day week instead of the usual five, at least in some industries. In 2018, the New Zealand financial services company Perpetual Guardian switched its 240 staff from a five-day to a four-day week and maintained their pay. A study of the trial found productivity increased in the four days they worked — so there was no fall in the total amount of work done.

The New Zealand study also found employees felt less stressed on a four-day working week, as well as more committed and engaged. Overall, staff reported a 7% drop in stress levels, compared to a year earlier when they were working five days a week.

“I think we've built a society full of dated ideals as to what work should look like,” says career expert Matthew Warzel, president of MJW Careers. “When Ford Motors popularised the 40-hour workweek, it was at a time when we didn't have computers, easily accessible information sharing, and relationships were cultivated a lot differently.”

“Times have changed and I think companies should try to work within the boundaries of what normal is, but alter it to maximise their employee's well-being,” he says. “Patience is key if we decide to shorten working hours or reduce the days of the week down to four. I think if the work gets done, emphasis on hours should be minimised.

“Plus, there's more emphasis, and for good reason, now on work-life balance and mental health, it can create even more disruption to the old 40-hour number.”

Careers Clinic
Careers Clinic