Working 40 Hours a Week? Research Shows Long Hours Breed Inefficiency

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The modern war for talent is marked by competition for highly-skilled workers. Companies know that a robust vacation package, remote work flexibility, and summer Fridays can appeal to all those darn millennials. But perhaps organizations shouldn't draw the line at these common work-life initiatives. Psychological evidence widely shows that shortening the 40-hour workweek altogether will increase productivity and employee engagement.

Organizations Breaking with Tradition

Earlier this year, New Zealand-based trustee company Perpetual Guardian took the working world by storm when it experimented with a 4-day work week for its employees. The results? A 7% decrease in stress and a 20% increase in team engagement, according to researchers that oversaw the experiment.

Since 2006, employees at technology education company Treehouse have enjoyed a 32-hour work week. CEO Ryan Carson believes the 40-hour workweek is inhumane – made the changes to give folks a more balanced total life – but noted that it had created a more productive work environment.

Even the world’s second-largest retailer, Amazon, is experimenting with a new arrangement allowing “part-time” employees to log 30 hours a week at 75% the normal salary – but keep all their benefits.

Here some of the factors other organizations should consider when reworking their 9 to 5.

Are We Only Productive for Hours or even Minutes?

A 2016 study conducted by vouchercloud polled nearly 2,000 office workers in the U.K. on their productivity. Respondents said that in a standard workday, they are “productively working” for an average of 2 hours and 53 minutes. For the other several hours they are at work, most folks said they spend that time perusing social media (44 minutes), reading news sites (1 hour and 5 minutes), and discussing out of work activities with co-workers (40 minutes). Other research suggests that some people can only concentrate for about 20 minutes at a time.

Andres Ericsson, a work psychology expert, says that companies are pushing employees to work far more than they are able to concentrate. Ericsson has studied the habits of experts, telling Business Insider that even the world’s most successful people only spend a few hours at a time trying to improve their craft. This is called “deliberate practice.” In the same vein as experts and deliberate practice, office-goers can only spend a few hours on menial tasks like filling out spreadsheets.

Parkinson’s Law

The nature of our workflow can also be a psychological strain. Parkinson's Law says that work expands to fill the time available for its completion. If a task reasonably takes three hours to complete, but an employee is given a week to do it, they will – psychologically – increase the complexity of the task in order for it to fill the week.

Parkinson’s Law is just an observation, not an exact science. But it’s good practice for employers to assign a realistic time limit to a task without getting into the weeds of ‘leg room’. The employee – given limited time – will complete the task on simple terms without letting it become overly-complicated and unnecessarily stressful.

A shorter workday or workweek calls for employees to work more efficiently. Parkinson’s Law suggests we should be doing that anyway.

In some industries, cutting down on 8-hour days or 40-hour weeks is more logistically complicated or financially risky. Nurses, security guards, or hourly-staff workers can also benefit from less hours per day or week, but businesses still have to fill those vacant hours with other employees. Still, evidence overwhelmingly shows that on the work grind, less is more.

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