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40-Hour Work Week: Its History And Future

Photo by Jazmin Quaynor

The global COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the way we view work. Most of us had to set up home offices and have had a chance to have a better work-life balance due to more flexible schedules and a lack of commuting. We also started to rethink how productivity is measured and whether 9 to 5 arrangement is truly effective.

How did the 40-hour work week become a worldwide standard? Where does this number come from? Has it even proved to be effective? Read on to find out!

The History of 40-Hour Work Week

For most societies that have existed, from the Egyptians to Renaissance era, people were primarily farmers. The working hours on a farm are very fluid: some days or even the whole season you don’t have much to do as opposed to certain times when you need to plant and harvest the crop. So, during those times, there was no need to regulate working hours or put in more work than required as you can’t harvest more wheat than you’ve sown or get more milk and meat from cows than they are capable of producing.

From the 18th to 19th century, the Industrial Revolution took place giving rise to machines and factories, which allowed people to increase output according to the manpower and working hours invested. For example, a single coal miner could dig more coal if they worked 6 days a week rather than 5 days. That’s why most people working in manufacturing had 80–100-hour weeks working between 10 and 16 hours, including children, for 6 days every week, which was bad for their sanity and safety and which gave rise to labor strikes requesting to limit the maximum number of working hours.

So, the makings of the 40-hour work week started only in the 19th century. Here’s a timeline of the key dates and events:

1817: Welsh manufacturer and labor rights activist Robert Owen coined the phrase ‘Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest’, which became the first step towards a labor reform.

1835: Workers in Philadelphia organized the first general strike in North America, led by Irish coal heavers. Their banners read, From 6 to 6, ten hours work and two hours for meals.[29]

1867: Chicago labor movement called for the Illinois Legislature to limit workdays to eight hours, according to the Chicago Historical Society. The law was passed but allowed employers to contract with their workers for longer hours. To eliminate this option, Chicago workers went on a strike for an 8-hour day on May 1, 1867.

1868, June 24: The US Congress passed the first eight-hour-day work law for federal employees, which established an eight-hour workday for laborers and mechanics employed by the Federal Government and cut their wages by 20%.

1869: President Ulysses S. Grant issued a National Eight Hour Law Proclamation declaring that the Government can’t reduce wages as a result of reduction of the workday.

1870s: Private-sector workers push for the same rights: they want an eight-hour working day without a cut in wages.

1884: The US Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions resolved that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labour organizations throughout this jurisdiction that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.” The same year, Tom Mann formed the Eight Hour League in the UK to pressure the Trades Union Congress to adopt the eight-hour day.

1886, May 1: 350,000 workers nationwide struck and along with the National Labor Union (NLU) demanded Congress to pass a law mandating the eight-hour workday, which turned into a bombing of a peaceful labor demonstration on May 4, also known as the Haymarket affair. Later, May 1st was picked as International Workers’ Day (also known as Labor Day or May Day).

1898: The United Mine Workers won an eight-hour day.

1900: The Building Trades Council of San Francisco won an eight-hour day.

1905: International Typographical Union won an eight-hour work day and their strike paved the way for similar gains by the other printing unions. The majority of Americans still worked around 12–14 hours per day.

1912: In the 1912 Presidential Election, Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party included eight-hour work days in their campaign.

1914: The Ford Motor Company cut shifts from nine to eight hours per day.

1916: The Adamson Act established an eight-hour working day, with additional pay for overtime, for railroad workers.

1926: Henry Ford introduced 40-hour work weeks with five working days with no cut in wages after he discovered that working 48-hour work weeks yielded only a small increase in productivity that lasted a short period of time. This discovery inspired other manufacturing companies to adopt the 40-hour work week.

1937: After Franklin D. Roosevelt took the oath in 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression (1929–1939), Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor of his choice, proposed a forty-hour workweek as a part of the New Deal — a set of programs aimed to reform the US financial system.

1938: Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which required employers to pay overtime to all employees who worked more than 44 hours a week. This act was only applied to industries whose combined employment represented about 20% of the US labor force.

1940: The Fair Labor Standards Act was amended to reduce the workweek to 40 hours. Since then, the 40-hour work week has been a U.S. law.

1948: Australia achieved a 40-hour week.

1960s: Canada adopted the 40-hour work week.

1998: In the UK, Working Time Regulations introduced a limit of 40-hour work week for workers under 18, and 48 hours for workers over 18. An 8-hour limit to the working day has never been achieved in the UK. The average working week in the UK is now 42.5 hours.

Are 40-Hour Work Weeks Effective?

The greatest lesson that we need to learn from the history of the 40-hour work week is this: it is not based on any research or best practices. The appearance of machines and factories shifted the focus from agriculture to manufacturing and soon led to the cut in working hours.

A new revolution is taking place nowadays: businesses are moving online, many jobs are getting automated with the use of IT, the old jobs are being redesigned and new jobs emerge every day. The COVID pandemic allowed us to review work arrangements and develop a positive attitude towards remote working. Is it time to review the number of working hours?

Let’s take a look at the day of an average worker. The following data about UK office workers by Vouchercloud reveals that the average number of productive hours equals 2 hours and 23 minutes daily.

One of the key reasons why employees engage in unproductive activities is that they have to sit through 8-hour work days. When they feel tired or unable to focus, they still have to be present at work, so they indulge in procrastination and activities not related to work, which cost businesses money, undermining employees’ mental health and job satisfaction. What if we could reduce the number of working hours to live to work, not work to live?

“One of the biggest failures of how business is set up is that we are measured by how much we work and not by what we accomplish.” — Chris Bailey

Numerous research and real-life examples prove that both employees and employers could benefit from less working hours. SimpleTexting surveyed over 1,000 Americans to learn public opinion about a four-day work week. 95.4% of respondents said they want a four-day work week as they believe that they will be more productive (97%), their mental health would improve (98%) and they would accomplish more personal goals and dreams (96%), which can be put up differently as improved satisfaction and wellbeing.

One of the important indicators that 40-hour work weeks are not only outdated but also harmful is the increasing rate of employee burnout. Before the pandemic happened, we had to spend about an hour of unpaid time commuting, which equals 45 hours weekly taken away from us. The remote work trend that followed after the pandemic should’ve improved our work-life balance and job satisfaction, but in reality the burnout rate has increased by 10% (from 34% to 44%) as compared to the previous year and it is still growing.

Many believe that the pandemic revealed many issues in our relationships with work and working time, meaning that we have a chance to reinvent work and the 40-hour work week in the years to come.

Future of 40-Hour Work Week

Just as Henry Ford found out that working 10–14 hours per day is ineffective, the pandemic revealed that 8-hour work weeks should go too. We had high hopes about virtual offices, but they didn’t prove healthy and comfortable to us either. So, we’ve come to a point where change is unavoidable.

Employers are growing increasingly open towards experimenting with working arrangements and employee benefits to achieve higher productivity, satisfaction and wellbeing. It means that in the next few years, we are likely to witness a growing interest towards the 40-hour work week alternatives, such as four-day workweeks, 32-hour or even 21-hour weeks.

If you are looking to introduce a different work arrangement or struggle to manage the existing one, try team calendar and absence management software. For example, in actiPLANS, you can manage employee schedules, absences and time off balances while your employees notify others of being absent or late, review who’s working from home and who is on vacation and plan their absences in a few clicks.

Even more, if you’d like to measure the effectiveness of your attendance policy, you can use actiTIME integration and combine time tracking and attendance management in a single environment. Try actiPLANS for free with a 30-day trial (no credit card required).

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