How many hours do you work a week? Nearly a century ago, British economist John Keynes predicted his grandchildren’s generation (our current one) would only work 15 hours. Given the current rate of overwork, this probably seems like a pretty ridiculous claim. Yet it made sense at the time.
Keynes saw firsthand the effects of industrialization on workplace productivity. Over his life, the average work hours per week dropped from 60 in 1890 to just 37 hours by 1940. So why wouldn’t he assume that trend would continue?
And it did. For a while. But by the 1970s, the downward trend of working hours had turned around. Today, reports say American workers average 47 work hours in a week—one of the highest in the world.
So what happened? Part of this is cultural (we celebrate “being busy”). Some of it is economical (we worry about losing our jobs in the current economic climate). While some of it is even technological (we have devices that make us “always on”).
But as we’ve written before, the negative effects of overworking are serious and far-reaching, from our health and well-being to our productivity. And, somewhat ironically, it doesn’t even help us get ahead.
So is there a magic number then for work hours in a month or week? Let’s take a look.
Working more than 40 hours a week? It won’t help you get ahead (and that’s the least of your problems)
Ask anyone how they’ve been and there’s a 96.7% chance you’ll get “busy” as a response. (Yes, that statistic is completely made up. But you get the point!) We live in a culture of busyness. The more work you do, the more people need you and the more important you are.
Beyond our egos, our jobs seem to be more and more demanding on our time and attention. The rise of knowledge work has led to jobs with less structure, more demands, and higher pressure to be productive.
With more pressure to perform, it only makes sense that we work longer hours, right? Not quite.
Studies have shown that working more hours increases your productivity only to a point. And that point seems to be around 49 hours. This is because we eventually hit the point of diminishing returns, which means everything we put in after that point results in a smaller and smaller output.
So, 49-hours a week is good, then? Well, no. Not only do longer hours mean more effort with less result, but there are some serious health concerns to also consider.
While causation hasn’t been proven, research does show a link between employees who are overworked and a higher risk of both stroke and coronary heart disease. Other studies have found working long hours is linked to an increased risk of fatigue, general poor health, and cardiovascular disease.
Even worse, perhaps the most shocking example of the futility of overworking is from a study that found managers couldn’t tell which of their employees worked 80 hours per week and who just pretended to. If you’re overworking in the hopes of impressing your boss and landing a raise, you may be wasting your time.
The substitution effect: More money makes us more likely to work more
Researchers have uncovered another seemingly irrational aspect to overwork. According to studies, the more money you make the more you’re likely to work. Rather than take advantage of wealth to rest, relax, and focus on personal projects, the top percentage of earners are most likely to put in long hours.
This is because of something called the substitution effect. Basically, when you make more, you view your time at work as worth more than someone with a lower salary.
Here’s an example: Let’s say there’s the choice to go to the office or skip the day and hit the beach. If you make $500 a day, you’ll be more likely to opt for the office. While someone who makes $100 might decide it’s more worth it to head for the beach.
As Harvard’s Richard Freeman writes in Why do we work more than Keynes expected?
“The workaholic rich have replaced the idle rich.”
Shorter working hours aren’t necessarily the answer, either
While it might seem like we’re arguing for shorter workdays or workweeks, that’s not necessarily the answer, either.
You might be seeing more and more talk about the benefits of a 4-day work week or a 6-hour workday. However, researchers say these schedules might only work for certain industries. As Dr. Aram Seddigh from Stockholm University’s Stress Research Institute says:
“I think the six-hour work day would be most effective in organisations—such as hospitals—where you work for six hours and then you just leave and go home. It might be less effective for organizations where the borders between work and private life are not so clear.”
Researchers are exploring the idea of shorter working hours, and a study in Sweden showed promising results in both worker happiness and health, as well as productivity. But while this experiment reduced the cost of sick pay and created new jobs, unless your entire company switches to a 4-day work week, the costs of hiring more employees to cover the missing hours makes this approach somewhat prohibitive.
So if long hours aren’t the answer. And neither are shorter days. How many work hours in a month should there be? Turns out the answer may not even be related to the actual number of hours we work.
Flexible hours could be the solution (If you use them in the right way)
One option that is getting more backing is to stop thinking about “how many” hours we should work, and move to “which” hours. Flexibility in working hours allows employees to choose working hours that suit their lifestyles better, and to work when they’re at their mental peaks.
According to researcher and author of Rest: Why you get more done when you work less, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, most people are only productive for 4–5 hours a day. Or, 20-25 work hours in a week.
In his book, Pang analyzed the daily schedules of top writers, scientists, creatives, and entrepreneurs. What he found was a similar pattern of intense bursts of work, followed by long periods of disconnect to recharge.
It's amazing what you can get done with two hours of uninterrupted work time. No Slack, no email – just getting actual stuff done. Most days we go 8+ hours changing from app to app just to get 1 hour of work done.
— Dave Gerhardt (@davegerhardt) October 14, 2018
With the rise of remote working and autonomy in the workplace, it’s easier than ever to create your own schedule. However, that same freedom can just as easily also lead to overwork. As freelance marketer Claire Autruong says:
“The same technology and mindset that lets us stay flexible can also compel us to flex right back into work at any time.”
When she started working as a freelancer from home, Autruong found she ended up working far more than was healthy. The answer, ironically, was to schedule a regular 40-hour work week, even though she had the flexibility to work whenever she wanted:
“… when I switched back to the dreaded 40 [hours], I felt like I was betraying all the workers ahead of me who blazed the trail leading to flexible work schedules and remote work.”
But that’s why you’re looking for flexibility: to create the schedule that works for you.
Research has shown employees with options for flexible working arrangements show greater job satisfaction and commitment to their companies, as well as being less likely to turnover. In fact, a study published in Harvard Business Review by the startup Werk, found that while 96% of employees say they need flexibility, only 47% say they have it.
With the rise of remote work and more jobs becoming self-directed, it’s important to question how many work hours in a month you should put in. But as we’ve seen, that’s not always straightforward. While more hours lead to diminishing returns and added health risks, too few can bring on added stress and unpredictability.
What it all comes down to is finding a balance. Be aware of how you’re spending your time at work. Kill the distractions that eat into your day. And make the most of the hours you do have.