Group wants to shun Silicon Valley and revive 40-hour working week

An advocacy group is calling for companies to revive the eight-hour day, saying Silicon Valley geeks have distorted how long one must work

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 December, 2013, 1:55pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 December, 2013, 5:24am

A small but impassioned group of psychologists and business academics have made a plea for changing the daily working routine – moving away from the ethics of the nerds and geeks of Silicon Valley and towards common industrial sense. “Bring back the 40 hour working week” is the way that one of them summarises it.

In an emotionally charged article on AlterNet, Sara Robinson claims that “the single, easiest, fastest thing your company can do to boost its output and profits – starting right now, today – is to get everybody off the 55-hour a week treadmill and back onto a 40-hour (working week) footing”.

She also has academic backing. Professor Teresa Amabile, the Edsel Bryant Ford professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and a director of research there, also compares modern working life to a treadmill and says that good managers must do more to take their workers off it to release their energy and innovation. “Often, it would be better to do less,” she told a recent issue of Harvard Gazette.

Other studies have given indirect support with findings that long work hours and consequent deprived sleep habits mean that tired workers tend to behave like drunks on the job.

Knowledge workers have fewer good hours than manual labourers do

Robinson recounted the historical background to the 40-hour week, pressures for which started in the UK and US in the early 19th century. “While it was the unions that pushed it, business leaders ultimately went along with it because their own data convinced them that this was a solid, hard-nosed business decision.”

Sadly, it seems that each generation has to relearn what their grandfathers knew. In 1848, the British parliament passed the Ten Hours Act restricting the number of hours that could be worked in factories and mills, and output per-worker per-day went up. In the 1890s, American employers tried the 8-hour day and found that output per worker increased.

Frederick W. Taylor, the 20th century originator of “scientific management,” prescribed reduced work times and achieved remarkable increases in output per worker.

Henry Ford, founder of the car company, took one of the most radical moves when he doubled workers’ pay and cut the shifts in Ford plants from nine hours to eight. Business boomed as more workers were able to afford cars. Ford was also aware of another important economic fact of life that modern business and politicians have forgotten – that economies are shared adventures, not businesses for and by the rich.

Economic studies were done by the hundreds from the 1930s to the 1950s, and showed that industrial workers have a good eight hours work a day in them, but ten hours on the job produce no more benefits than eight hours. Detailed analysis show that workers are most productive between the second and sixth hour at work.

In addition, industrial accidents are more likely to occur when workers are tired. Such accidents could be catastrophically anti-productive because they are liable to disable workers, damage equipment, shut down production lines and open the company to lawsuits, as well as hurt shareholders as the stock price falls.

Studies during the 1980s showed that there was an exception to the sanity of the 40-hour working week. The Business Roundtable found that for a short period, say to meet a critical production deadline, you could get gains by going to a 60 or even 70-hour week.

But, of course, a 50 per cent increase in working hours did not produce a 50 per cent rise in output. Indeed, daily productivity started to fall off in the second week and fell rapidly with every successive week.

Business Roundtable discovered that after eight weeks of working 60 hours, the decline in productivity was so marked that the company would have been better off sticking to the regular 40-hour week.

The other downside of extra overtime hours is that it takes workers time to recover to get back to their daily productive routine for a 40-hour week. My father’s recitation of the old proverb that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” was correct then.

But this is all in reference to production line workers, who have to exert themselves physically by swinging a hammer or heaving bricks or heavy loads. It is surely different for white-collar desk workers, whose grey cells are must be stimulated by constant mental activity?

Actually, no, argues Robinson. “Research shows that knowledge workers actually have fewer good hours in a day than manual labourers do – on average, about six hours, as opposed to eight.”

She suggests examining your own working day, which probably consists of five or six hours of hard mental work and then two to three hours answering e-mails, making telephone calls, going to meetings. “You can stay longer if your boss asks; but after six hours, all he’s really got left is a butt in a chair. Your brain has already clocked out and gone home.”

In addition, knowledge workers are sensitive to sleep loss. Studies by the US military show that loss of one hour of sleep a night will lead to a level of cognitive degradation equivalent to a .10 blood alcohol level. That’s pretty drunk, but, worse still, workers in this state don’t understand that their ability is impaired.

Why and how was the old wisdom forgotten? Robinson cites the emergence of the Silicon Valley culture populated by geeks whose existence revolved around work and the praise by management guru Tom Peters of the “excellence” of the valley work ethic. Managers forgot workers were human and measured their performance by a simple metric: willingness to spend your entire life in the office.

Then came Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the bashing of trade unions and the cult of the entrepreneur as the hope of the economy. Microsoft and Macintosh led the way with “churn ‘em and burn ‘em”, the practice of working young programmers hard until they dropped. “Working 90 hours a week and loving it,” read an early Mac tee-shirt – but the first Apple might have appeared a year earlier if the company had not worked its programmers so hard.

Amabile has a micro-perspective. She urges good managers to take their staff off the treadmill regularly. She said the single most important thing for a manager is “protecting at least 30 to 60 minutes each day for yourself and your people that’s devoted to quiet reflection”.

Henry Blodget, founder of Business Insider, also laments that the cult of the rich entrepreneur – which he also is – has damaged the economy. “Entrepreneurs and investors like me actually don’t create the jobs – not sustainable ones, anyway,” he said.

“A healthy economic ecosystem – one in which most participants (especially the middle class) have plenty of money to spend creates a growing economy.”

However it is big business leaders who fund the politicians, and that is one of the contradictions of modern democracy.