Skip to main content

Will We Ever Be Able to Enjoy a Shorter Work Week?

For most individuals in the knowledge economy, limits on daily work hours are irrelevant to economic and mental health. France thinks it may have finally found a solution, but its last efforts were unsuccessful.
  • Author:
  • Updated:
(Photo: Tom Tomczyk/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Tom Tomczyk/Shutterstock)

Workers of the world, rejoice: The 40-hour work week may soon be a thing of the past.

The governing coalition of the city of Gothenburg, Sweden, has proposed a year-long experiment with an alternative work schedule. The municipal council will separate employees into two different groups at the same pay rate, with a test group working six-hour days and a control group working the traditional eight.

The desired results: fewer sick days, increased efficiency, and lowered costs to the Swedish government. "We'll compare the two afterwards and see how they differ," deputy mayor Mats Pilhem told English-language newspaper The Local. "We hope to get the staff members taking fewer sick days and feeling better mentally and physically after they've worked shorter days." The Atlantic’sUri Friedman notes that this experiment owes its intellectual roots to the industrial organization of cereal baron W.K. Kellogg, who replaced the rotating eight-hour shift schedule at his plant in Michigan with six-hours periods, resulting in an explosion in hiring and lowered production costs.

Despite a shortened work week and the world’s most notorious summer vacations, an expansive WHO study identified the French as one of the most depressed nations in the industrialized world.

Economists have sung the praises of a shortened work week for decades. A shorter work week, they’ve argued, can be used to address problems related to unemployment, low well-being, entrenched inequality, and a variety of other social and economic dysfunction.

The New Economics Foundation recently posited that a 21-hour work week might be the ideal point for an advanced economy, where paid work and natural resources would be more evenly distributed across a robust economy, solving problems from carbon emissions to gender relations and the quality of family life. “The Netherlands and Germany have a shorter workweek than the United States and Britain,” NEF researcher Anna Coote recently argued in the New York Times. “But the Dutch and German economies are stronger, not weaker. Workers on shorter hours tend to be more productive hour-for-hour. They are under less stress, they get sick less often and they make a more loyal and committed workforce.”

But hold your applause, fellow proletarian: The efficacy of the shortened work week is far from proven. France moved to a 35-hour week in 2000, bringing the legal standard limit down from 39 hours. The goals of the shift were more of the same: a better division of labor, lower unemployment, and more personal time for workers to enhance their quality of life. But this gradual tightening of the work week didn’t work as intended.

France’s 35-hour week had hardly made a dent in unemployment by 2005, when 60 Minutesexamined its impact on the country’s overall economy. Two years later, a Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) study found the policy had not succeeded in increasing employment and had, in fact, generated a series of behavioral responses that were likely to have reduced overall social welfare, as workers and firms tried to avoid the rigidities created by the law at the expense of the overall health of the labor force. Even more importantly, there seems to have been no significant mental health gains for those workers suddenly blessed with more leisure time: Despite a shortened work week and the world’s most notorious summer vacations, an expansive 2011 World Health Organization study identified the French as one of the most depressed nations in the industrialized world.

The problem? The metrics of labor considered by work week advocates—hours and jobs—fail to account for the modern nature of work in a knowledge economy as something unshaped by time on the assembly line or in the office. “The idea of positive spillovers in leisure, motivated by a ‘rat race’ equilibrium in the workplace, seems to be relevant in some professions, in particular the ones where long hours and high salaries are the rule,” the authors of the CEPR study write. “But, because the shorter workweek was applied much more flexibly to workers in managerial positions, with directors being fully exempt, its potential to provide a mechanism for offsetting the ‘rat race’ equilibrium was largely diminished.”

The rat race equilibrium. What does that mean? The impulse to produce, to succeed, and to advance can outweigh any incentive provided by a limit on work, legal or not (especially in countries like, say, the United States, where “I’m working late” is seen as a sign of occupational devotion and hard work). In today’s competitive economy that often means being reachable—and responsible—at least over email, well after the close of business. Many workers in the technology, media, and advertising sectors are on call 24 hours a day.

The American Psychological Association has identified tremendous risks posed by poor scheduling, unhealthy attitudes, and a lack of down-time between periods of labor, whether they take place in a physical office or not. The productivity advancements touted as core to the shortened work week are what Mother Jones editors Clara Jeffery and Monica Bauerlein expertly identified as part of America’s “Great Speed-Up,” where Americans work harder and harder without experiencing any major occupational or market-wide gains, often at their own personal expense.

This is what the modern knowledge economy in the age of email and smartphones looks like: it transcends offices and labor reforms and cuts right into your cognitive functions, so far that those extra few hours spent outside the office are garbled by constant communication with co-workers and anxiety over unfinished tasks.

“Minus a few freakish exceptions, most of us cannot actually multitask,” write Jeffery and Bauerlein. “Try to keep up a conversation with your spouse while scanning the BlackBerry, and empirical data shows that you do both things poorly. And not only that: If you multitask constantly, your actual mental circuitry erodes, and your brain loses its ability to focus. (Same with sleep: Aside from a tiny minority of mutants, humans perform distinctly and progressively worse when they get fewer than eight hours a night. Go ahead and cry.)”

The CEPR suggested that the 35-hour work week should be discontinued and workers and firms should be “free to choose the length of the workweek.” And France, after years of poor results, is trying something new: Making sure that time spent off the clock is actually off the clock. A new, legally binding labor agreement  means that many French workers can ignore emails from their bosses, no matter how urgent, once they’re out of the office. The rule mandates that workers have a "duty to disconnect communication tools at a distance" to ensure they receive “the minimum rest periods imposed by the French and European regulations on workload and minimum rest time.”

It’s unclear whether this measure will spread to other advanced nations: French financial newspaper Les Echosnotes that this is an extension of a 2008 law that was formulated as a reaction to some of the economic dysfunction wrought by the 35-hour work week. But modern knowledge workers on the verge of workplace exhaustion, fear not: Should this new measure yield more robust productivity (and mental health) benefits than the shortened work week, compulsive phone-checkers and email addicts may finally enjoy some much-needed salvation.