If you were required to work 3 days a week for full pay at your place of business, would you complain? Probably not. In the corporate culture in North America, such an idea is preposterous. What employers may not realize—and what psychological research is confirming—is that people are more productive if they work less than 5 days a week.
A 2016 study at the University of Melbourne (Australia) focused on how much time is regularly spent at a paying job and its effects on cognitive function of people age 40 and over. Researchers administered 3 tests to demonstrate cognitive ability and compared it to the number of hours worked:
- Backward Digit Span (reading a string of single numbers sequentially, then repeating the same numbers backwards)
- Symbol Digits Modalities (substituting numbers for geometric figures)
- 25-item version (short form) of the National Adult Reading Test (an inventory that estimates intellectual ability)
Almost 80% of the people who participated in the study were employed outside the home for 35 hours per week or more. Cognition testing found that subjects’ abilities increased to a threshold of 25 working hours a week; after that, test results fell in proportion to the number of working hours over that number. Fifty-four percent of the approximately 6500 participants in the study were female, however, results reflected no difference between the sexes.
The object of the study was to determine the validity of the premise “use it or lose it”, referring to the idea that if we aren’t intellectually and socially engaged at a job, our cognitive functions decline as we age. Researchers concluded:
“Work can be a double edged sword, in that it can stimulate brain activity, but at the same time, long working hours and certain types of tasks can cause fatigue and stress which potentially damage cognitive functions. Thus, the degree of intellectual stimulation of work may depend on the required task and working hours, that is, the quality and the quantity of work.” (1)
The answer then is “use it too much and lose it”!
The Five-day Work Week
Because of the increased life expectancy realized over the last century, many countries are planning or contemplating raising the age of retirement. This is good for Americans who choose to work past age 65 but can be a hardship if you want to retire but won’t receive full pension benefits until later. Currently, workers in North America retire much later than in Russia, China, Australia, and Japan. (2)
In North America, Mexicans top the worldwide list of annual hours worked. Out of all the industrialized countries in the world only 9 have an average of annual working hours higher than the U.S. (3) A typical week requires 40 hours of work, leaving not a lot of waking time for much else, especially if regular overtime is required.
Historically, working 40 hours a week was a drastic reduction for manufacturers who were working 100 hours at the turn of the 20th century. In the first 4 decades, the 5-day, 40-hour workweek became the standard across industries in the U.S.
It’s important to keep in mind that this was at a time when a) the world’s population was much smaller than today; b) war economies required that people work to support the efforts and many men in their primes were overseas; c) unemployment was a concern after 1929 and putting more people to work at fewer hours each was more economically and socially desirable. (4) None of those situations are current economic factors in North America.
Many employers give lip service to a desire to allow their employees a work-life balance. In fact, most people who work at a management level are routinely required to work much more than 40 hours each week—most often without additional pay. (5) Telecommuting has become increasingly popular across industries; while doing so is a time- and money-saver, being able to work remotely means that you can (and are often expected to) work outside of business hours. (6)
The importance of not working can’t be over-estimated. Working full-time with few or no breaks for 45 years or more will eventually take its toll. “Burn-out” is what happens when you hit the wall. Over-work is associated with chronic stress and its related health problems, including heart disease and cancer. Life outside of work has its unavoidable stressors; workplace stress on top of that (often with no easy relief) can make you age faster and push you over the edge.
How do you know if you’re overworked? Here are some signs to watch out for:
- You often use alcohol or drugs to relax.
- You normally work long hours but show little to no concrete results for it.
- You don’t sleep enough and feel fatigued throughout the day.
- You feel general anxiety, sadness, or depression.
- You regularly work overtime.
- Sore/strained eyes and body aches.
- Interpersonal relationships are an increasing challenge to forge or maintain in a healthy and loving way.
It is possible to die from over-work. (7) Chronic over-work can lead to serious illnesses and eroded mental health. (8, 9)
Adjusting for 21st-century Life
In an effort to attract and retain skilled employees, some employers are becoming more flexible with work schedules. Research indicates that small allowances can provide huge benefits to workers:
- employees beginning work at times suitable to their natural rhythms – starting work at 10:00 a.m., for example
- shortened work week – more hours per day but fewer days
- in France, employers are legally banned from emailing workers outside of business hours (10)
- an estate management firm in New Zealand tested moving to a 4-day work week and found that productivity was at least the same as a 5-day week (11); this is in accordance with some school districts in the U.S. who have moved to a 4-day school week
- depending on the industry and workforce, a 6-hour work day can be significantly more productive and effective than an 8-hour day (12)
- providing time off in lieu of pay for overtime
- increasing the number of vacation days given to the workforce: Americans receive the least amount of vacation days and Canadians are third from last of all economically advanced nations (13)
Research has shown that office workers are actually productive only about 3 hours a day—there really is a limit to how long you can focus on a task and how many tasks you can complete in any given day. (14)
Take Care of Yourself
It becomes even more critical to be cognizant of your daily habits and health if you work full-time for all or most of your adult life. Fill your time away from work doing things you enjoy with people you care about. Practice self-care. It’s been said that no one on a deathbed has ever said, “I wish I had worked more!” You won’t get the past back but you can make the best of your present and your future by keeping your work life in perspective and taking advantage of any flexibility your employer may offer. Feel free to refer to the body of research we’ve mentioned the next time you’re negotiating with your boss.