by Robert Raymond
Studies show that a shorter workweek is healthier for people and the planet—but much of the conversation is focused on its impact on worker productivity or efficiency. This is a big mistake.
With the average worker in the United States clocking 47 hours a week, Americans are among the most overworked populations in the world—in fact, they work more hours per year than workers in almost any other industrialized country.
Advocates of a shorter work week had a brief moment of excitement in California last April when state Democrats proposed a bill that would have required private-sector employers with more than 500 employees to pay hourly workers overtime after logging more than 32 hours a week.
Unfortunately, the proposal didn’t make it very far through the legislative bill-making machine before it stalled out in committee. For the foreseeable future, the bill will remain in legislative purgatory.
However, despite a disappointing outcome, the mere existence of the proposed bill in the state legislature is an important step toward shortening the Californian workweek—something that would be a boon to workers.
There are many benefits of working shorter hours. One that has been particularly compelling to employers is the fact that shorter hours have been linked to increased worker efficiency and productivity. For example, a 2021 study from Japan empirically determined that “when long working hours are reduced, individual productivity increases, and fewer mistakes are made at work.”
Studies have also shown that working fewer hours actually increases worker happiness—leaving employees feeling more energized and giving them more free time to pursue their interests outside of work.
I’d hazard a guess that the majority of us would drool over the prospect of fewer hours of wage labor and more hours in our day for rest, leisure, or—as the 19th-century slogan of the 8-hour day movement advocated—more hours to do with “what we will.”
In fact, re-framing this discussion around the needs of labor rather than the needs of employers is critical for getting us on a path towards a healthier, more sustainable world where workers thrive.
As journalist, economic analyst, and author Doug Henwood told Shareable: “I’m not particularly moved by the productivity argument on this question. An appeal organized around “enjoy your life, hang with friends and family, make some art, learn to cook, cherish the ‘pleasure of merely circulating’—a line from Wallace Stevens—or ‘la dolce fa’ niente’—sweetly doing nothing, an Italian phrase that really doesn’t exist in American English—might have more appeal.”
Yet traditional economists tend to focus on how a shortened work week can increase productivity, which limits the conversation to the needs of capital and thus only further hamstrings the labor movement.
The successful fight for the 8-hour workday did not hinge on appeals of increased worker productivity— it was a bloody, centuries-long battle fought by socialists, unionists, and similar groups. It was part of a much broader movement advocating for labor rights and protections against capitalists, not for them.
What has changed since 1938—the year that the 8-hour day was federally codified into law—is that much of our culture and politics have become completely dominated by economic thinking. For the most part, we don’t make decisions about how to structure society around the well-being of most, but strictly around what we believe will be best for profits. It’s the complete commodification of everything—including our time.
This kind of thinking has even led to the corruption of religion and spirituality. For example, Buddhist practices of mindfulness and meditation are now being deployed by corporations as a way to increase worker productivity and therefore profits.
In this neoliberal world, even the teachings of the Buddha have been stripped of their ethical components to better serve the interests of capital.
Thinking in terms of productivity and profits only serves the needs of the bosses. If we want to win the fight for our right to free time, we shouldn’t wear a capitalist cloak and wave a banner representing “the economy.”
Rather, the fight must be framed as just one element in a broad set of demands that shift the scale of power, and break the stranglehold that economic thinking has on us.
“We’ve become such creatures of the capitalist mindscape that we can’t imagine anything beyond it,” Henwood says. “There’s an exhaustion of people’s mental and spiritual life as a result of this focus on work and the way people define themselves in their work and career. It’s just such a bankrupt way of looking at the world.”
Aside from increased leisure time, there are still many arguments for a shortened work week that do not rely on the productivity question.
A recent report titled “The Ecological Limits of Work” suggests that we need to drastically reduce work hours in order to stay under 2 degrees of global warming. The United Kingdom, for example, would need to move to a 9-hour workweek, and Sweden to a 12-hour workweek.
Further, a shortened work week would also distribute paid and unpaid work (such as caring for children or elders) more evenly across the population, which would reduce inequities in general.
Countries, companies, and organizations that are exploring and implementing shorter work weeks include Iceland, Canada, the Scottish National Party, Unilever and Kickstarter. There’s even a pilot program that was launched in April by the not-for-profit 4 Day Week that has brought 38 North American companies and over 50 British companies onboard to experiment with a 4 day work week.
Yet for many of these examples, improved worker productivity is still often cited first and foremost. Even on the 4 Day Week website, worker productivity is highlighted on the homepage.
The website also cites improved productivity on its Iceland page, stating: “The trials, in which workers were paid the same amount for shorter hours, took place between 2015 and 2019. Productivity remained the same or improved in the majority of workplaces, researchers said.”
While the strategy of winning over our bosses makes sense on some level, it cannot be the cornerstone of the fight to shorten the workweek and to ultimately decommodify our time—because that is what this is really about: taking our lives back.
As writer and anti-work proponent Anglia Delenda puts it, the shift from a productivity-obsessed mindset to more human-focused ways of being has little to do with the traditional capitalist view of gain and greed and more to do with workers’ growing concern for their general wellbeing.
“Anti-work does not mean ‘I should get to live like a king and eat Doritos while other people do all the hard work.’”
“Anti-work means ‘It sure would be nice if I wasn’t impelled by violence to perform labour that wracks my body with microinjuries that will leave me disabled by 60.’”
—Anglia Delenda Est (on hiatus) (@rollerska8er) February 5, 2021.
Perhaps the unionization drives at companies such as Starbucks and Amazon, along with pandemic labor unrest—including the “great resignation”—will open up a space for a parallel fight around a shortened workweek.
It may not seem explicitly clear on the surface, but all of these fights are about the same thing: ending the hegemony of capitalism in our lives.
And if you ask me, the idea of taking back our time and using it for what we want is a great place to start.
Robert R. Raymond is a creative media specialist at Shareable, founding producer of Upstream, and a producer of The Response podcast. He is passionate about exploring the intersections. This piece was originally published on May 19, 2022 at www.shareable.net. It is published here under Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).