A 4-day workweek could help with burnout : Life Kit The five-day workweek can feel as preordained as the number of minutes in an hour, but it hasn't always been the norm. Workers fought for a Monday-to-Friday schedule before it became standard in the U.S. in the 1930s. Since then, the nature of work has changed a lot, and now, workers are once again fighting for better conditions, says U.K.-based researcher Will Stronge.

In this episode, Stronge, who co-wrote the book Overtime: Why We Need a Shorter Working Week, discusses what has changed since the '30s and what a shorter workweek offers workers and organizations.

The 40-hour workweek isn't working. Reducing it could help with productivity

The 40-hour workweek isn't working. Reducing it could help with productivity

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1043145165/1197917956" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

A lot of things have changed since the five-day workweek began in the 1930s, and what's now considered the normal workweek doesn't support many workers, says U.K.-based researcher Will Stronge. Olivia Fields for NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Olivia Fields for NPR

A lot of things have changed since the five-day workweek began in the 1930s, and what's now considered the normal workweek doesn't support many workers, says U.K.-based researcher Will Stronge.

Olivia Fields for NPR

The five-day workweek can feel as preordained and immovable as the number of minutes in an hour. You wake up, go to work and come home. Then, wash, rinse, repeat until the weekend.

But the Monday-to-Friday grind hasn't existed forever. Nearly a century ago, working six days a week was the norm. In the U.S., the five-day workweek (along with the two-day weekend) is something workers fought for and won in the 1930s after working years in grueling conditions that are now illegal.

The world has changed a lot since the five-day workweek became enshrined into federal law. But we've kept working 40 hours from Monday through Friday even though that schedule no longer supports many workers.

"The normal working week doesn't work in many ways," says U.K.-based researcher Will Stronge, who co-wrote the book Overtime: Why We Need a Shorter Working Week with Kyle Lewis. "It's just hidden by the fact that we're forced to do it."

Overtime: Why We Need A Shorter Working Week, by Will Stronge and Kyle Lewis Verso hide caption

toggle caption
Verso

Stronge says being at work for eight hours of the day doesn't mean you're operating at peak productivity for those eight consecutive hours. But that's what the five-day workweek suggests. Meanwhile, workers in all kinds of industries are suffering from burnout and blurred lines between their professional and personal lives.

Explore Life Kit

This story comes from Life Kit, NPR's family of podcasts to help make life better — covering everything from exercise to raising kids to making friends. For more, sign up for the newsletter and follow @NPRLifeKit on Twitter.

So, how did we get here, and where can we go? Life Kit spoke with Stronge about when the five-day workweek became normal, what has changed since then and what a shorter workweek offers workers and organizations. Excerpts from the conversation, edited for length and clarity, are below.

Interview highlights


How we got to the five-day workweek

Coming out of World War I and World War II, [workers] basically wanted a better deal. You had President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the U.S. who said: Look, we want a welfare system. We want better support for our society. Frances Perkins, Roosevelt's secretary of labor, was very much informed by [workers] making these demands on [working hours and conditions]. So you get the Fair [Labor Standards] Act in 1938 baking in the 40-hour working week into legislation to set new standards for what the working week is.

How work has changed since the five-day workweek became normal

In the U.S., we've gone from large manufacturing economies to more service-based economies. The U.S. still has a lot of manufacturing, of course. But now, there's a lot more desk-based work, particularly since the IT revolution of the '80s and '90s.

I think what's happened since is that our working culture has changed to be one where it's much more about going above and beyond — working beyond your hours either for better career prospects or simply because it is demanded of you by your boss.

Now, during the pandemic, you're in your living room with your laptop. So it's hard to switch off this creep which has infiltrated our working lives. I think it's safe to say it's to the detriment of most people that it's hard to switch off.

How a shorter workweek addresses the "second shift" women perform at work and at home

The male breadwinner model has been around since the start of industrialism. Women looked after kids, prepared their meals and also nurtured and looked after the male worker after he came home exhausted from the industrial grind. Throughout the 20th century, when women entered the workplace, women got incomes of their own and lived lives outside of the domestic regime. But they also got the "second shift." You work your job, you go home, you do the second shift of looking after the family and preparing the meal.

So, if you're talking about reducing working hours in general, a four-day workweek will first and foremost benefit those who work the longest hours in total. This is particularly relevant to women who both have their paid employment and their unpaid work at home. Work is a feminist issue as much as anything else.

How the five-day workweek hurts the environment

Studies carried out around the world link working hours to people's carbon emissions or carbon footprints. That's not just because of the kind of work people do in production (manufacturing and construction being very carbon intensive). It's not just that. It's also because of things like commuting. If people drive to work, that's a huge carbon burden. If you're taking ready-made meals and bottled water, these kinds of quick, easy foods that come with a work-centered lifestyle, they have high carbon footprints as well. If we're going to fight climate change, a decent way of doing that while also improving people's working lives is reducing the work of the working week.

What a shorter workweek offers workers and organizations

For many organizations, what you lose in labor time you gain in greater productivity on the job. For a lot of desk-based fields — creative organizations, administrative organizations and small manufacturers as well — there's a recognition that in an eight-hour day, there is some slack. We can't concentrate all the time, particularly if you're overworked and burned out. So reducing the working week has reaped dividends in terms of productivity and worker well-being, which means workers come to work refreshed. They come to work liking their job a bit more and wanting to get the work done so that they can have a nice weekend.

The biggest challenges to shortening the workweek

The main obstacle for implementing a shorter workweek is changing the work culture. You might have people who want to work above and beyond. They might want to prove that they're working hard by putting in extra hours. But that's detrimental because a workplace with a decent working culture would be one where the quality of work is good, where everyone's playing their role and collaborating within the team. It's not about individually proving that you're a harder worker than others. So, laying down firm guidelines and ground rules about what working hours are and what's expected of staff — that's what needs to be in place to avoid overwork culture.

Why we should care about a shorter workweek

I think we should all be interested in the future of work. We're all workers of one kind or another, whether it's manufacturing or service sector or radio. The future is something that we can, and should, shape. And I think we should steer away from this wave of automation coming in, the jobless future, and so on. We should not give in to the temptation to think that the future is just on its way to impose stuff on us. But we should be interested in the future of work so we can change it.

How we'd fill time on our day off

This sounds quite banal, but a lot of people just get their life admin done so the weekends are entirely clear to do all the fun stuff they want to do. I've met people who say they used to brew beer and they want to get back into that. And a lot of people just want to spend more time with their family and pick their kids up from school and so on, which I think is quite heartwarming.


The audio portion of this episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider, with engineering support from Josh Newell.

We'd love to hear from you. If you have a good life hack, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.

If you love Life Kit and want more, subscribe to our newsletter.