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Nobody Works The Last Two Hours Anyway, Right?

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The eight-hour workday. It’s been around for as long as almost anyone working today can remember. But it wasn’t always this way. And at least one municipal government is trying even fewer hours.

First, a quick primer on why we think of work as forty hours spread across five days. The answer to that question is: labor unions. As reported by PBS:

Around the turn of the twentieth century, a popular movement for the eight-hour day in the U.S. rippled from coast to coast. At least fifty years earlier, working Americans were pushing for a ten-hour day standard. But by the 1880s, many Americans called for an even shorter workday of eight-hours.

Groups of laborers across the country, from cobblers and garment cutters to machinists and carpenters, began organizing Knights of Labor assemblies, which called for better working conditions.

That’s a big drop. In fact, according to Discovery News, “[In 1890,] full-time manufacturing employees worked an average of 100 hours a week and building tradesmen were on the job an average 102 hours.”

Laborers Working in a Factory, 1920

© Flickr user Seattle Municipal Archives

Whether it’s enforced by government mandate, market forces, or company practices, shorter workdays do make sense. Since taking breaks increases productivity, it stands to reason that changing the duration of work might have a positive impact.

So why not even shorter? That’s the story of one city government office in Sweden:

Municipal staff in Gothenburg will act as guinea pigs in a proposed push for six-hour workdays with full pay, with hopes that it will cut down on sick leave, boost efficiency, and ultimately save Sweden money.

“We think it’s time to give this a real shot in Sweden,” Mats Pilhem, Left Party deputy mayor of Gothenburg, told The Local.

He explained that the municipal council would use two different departments – a test group and a control group, in essence. Staff in one section will cut down to six-hour days, while their colleagues in a different section stick to the ordinary forty-hour week. All employees will be given the same pay.

The debate isn’t just about the length of the workday, but also the total number of hours. The experiment in Sweden will either prove that employees can get more done in less time, or they can’t. Consider these possibilities:

  • If you can accomplish in 32 hours what you once did in 40, what were you doing those other eight hours? The answer is clear: you weren’t working, or at least not as efficiently. But not working–even if you are at the office–is not necessarily a problem. We all visit the water cooler, use the restroom, or stretch. Even a quick Facebook break is fine.
  • If you cannot get as much done in 32 hours as you did in 40, does that really prove anything? It certainly doesn’t mean you were operating at peak efficiency. Rather, it just means that taking away eight hours has a net negative effect.
  • If you get more done in 32 hours than you did in 40, what were those eight hours doing to you? Maybe, like the factory workers of yesteryear, they were undermining your morale.

A more fundamental question might be: How long should people work? A much larger experiment with even more profound effects on society has been running for decades. It’s a debate in the nursing community about the length of a shift. In a blog post for American Nurse Today, Dona Cardillo asks: Are 12-hour shifts safe?

12-hour shifts have become the norm in hospitals…[However,] a recent study done by the University of Maryland concludes that the odds of making patient errors increases three-fold when nurses work 12-hour vs. 8.5-hour shifts.

That’s not to say a shorter shift is always safer than a longer shift. In healthcare, anyway, there’s considerable evidence to note that the greatest risk factor to the patient happens right around the changeover. But certainly there are limits to how long people can work and remain effective.

The bottom line is this: you should stop working when you’re tired. You should take breaks when you need to. And to the degree that it is practical, companies should create schedules that are based on understanding how fatigue impacts the work at hand.

Maybe nobody works the last two hours. And if so, they shouldn’t be expected to be there. After all, isn’t work about getting things done?

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
Robby Slaughter


Troublemaker and productivity/workflow expert. Slightly more complex than 140 characters will permit.
@lorraineball First probably depends on the business. But second is likely training, especially with regard to sales. - 1 month ago
Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter

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