What goes on for more than eight hours a day, lasts for five days a week, and causes adults to experience a litany of health issues?
U.S. employees clock more hours at work than any other nation in the world. Almost 40 percent of Americans work at least 10 hours every day, or more than 50 hours a week, according to a 2014 Gallup Poll.
That’s almost one month more per year compared to the 1970s, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Numerous reports and studies have shown that the expected pace put upon the U.S. workforce is to blame for many health issues that plague adults today. These include sleep issues, obesity, and an overall weakened immune system.
Employees that work more than 11 hours a day are 2.5 times more likely to develop depression and more than 60 times more likely to develop heart disease, according to the Center for a New American Dream.
“We were told that at the end of the 20th century there would be too much leisure time,” said John de Graaf, director of “Take Back Your Time,” and a noted filmmaker and author who has conducted extensive research on the overworked U.S. job force.
That hasn’t happened.
Instead “the United States has the shortest life expectancy of any wealthy country in the world,” de Graaf told Healthline.
Working Less is Healthier
Experts say the solution to a lot of health issues that afflict adults is simple.
Shave off a few hours in the workday, or cut back the workweek by a day, and we could see significant improvements in our physical and mental health.
Companies that have adopted an abbreviated workweek say their employees are able to achieve a healthy work-life balance and still produce at a level that is needed for business to thrive.
“Our employees come back to work refreshed and ready to concentrate,” Katie Fang, founder and chief executive officer of SchooLinks said in a story on FastCompany.com. “In a startup environment, it’s tempting to scale the company faster. Four-day workweeks allow us to provide some sense of balance.”
European countries have followed a shorter work schedule for decades. Denmark employees clock around 33 hours a week while Italian workers usually log 36-hour workweeks.
Scandinavian countries in particular are known to support a shorter workweek, paid time off, plus job sharing.
In the Netherlands, employees can ask to transition from full-time to part-time, and the employer must grant the request, according to de Graaf. Benefits are prorated to reflect fewer hours.
“Healthcare is universal,” he said. “So they don’t have worry about their health. It really does create far less stress.”
The collective value in a healthy work-life balance is revealing.
People who live in Scandinavian countries continue to rank among the happiest in the world.
Aside from the physical and emotional health benefits derived from a shorter workweek there is also an environmental benefit.
A reduction in work hours by just 10 percent would result in a 15 percent reduction in a person’s carbon footprint.
Not Common Yet in the U.S.
In the U.S. a number of companies that offer a shorter workday or workweek are considered the exception rather than the norm.
A report by the Family and Work Institute showed that just 18 percent of companies offered employees the ability to “work part year (i.e. work reduced time on an annual basis).”
Roughly 43 percent have the option to “compress the workweek by working longer hours on fewer days for at least part of the year.”
In addition to SchooLinks, software companies Treehouse and Basecamp also use a four-day workweek, as well as the accounting firms Ryan and KPMG, according the story published on FastCompany.com. All of the companies reported little to no drop in productivity and some said it increased.
Even though the number of companies that offer a shorter workweek remains elusive, de Graaf said he senses a shift. In particular, the push for paid family leave has galvanized the masses to reconsider the American workhorse mentality.
“I’ve seen more progress in the last year than I have in 20 years,” he said.
Productivity vs. Burnout
The presumptive notion that longer work hours lead to greater productivity is a fallacy, according to K. Anders Ericsson, Ph.D., a Conradi Eminent Scholar and Professor of Psychology at Florida State University and co-author of “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.”
In his research, Ericsson has studied how musicians compose and athletes train. He concluded these individuals only had a limited amount of concentration time — roughly four to five hours. After that they produced diminished returns.
The same could be said for a person who works in a position where highly skilled tasks are needed, such as coding, designing, or writing, Ericsson said.
A lengthy workday won’t translate to improved productivity. Rather, it tends to create the opposite — burnout.
“People push themselves to the point where they will have problems,” he told Healthline. “They may not be able to recoup.”
There are exceptions, Ericsson noted. Jobs such as delivery truck drivers or grocery store clerks. In those scenarios, a four-hour day won’t likely produce the same amount of work as an eight-hour day.
He said one way companies can help employees avoid job burnout is to give them more flexibility in their work schedule. This way they can maximize the time when their most meaningful tasks and projects need to be completed.
“The key is that they have those few hours that they feel like they are doing their best work,” he said.
Once the optimum workflow is determined, he said employers might come to find out that their staff won’t be too concerned about the amount of time they spend at the office because of job satisfaction.
“If you have somebody who loves what they are doing,” he said, “would you want to limit that person?”