How Much Should You be Working?


In 1930, John Maynard Keynes, the man regarded as the founder of macroeconomics, from whom Keynesian economics takes its name, predicted that in one hundred years time the average human workweek would clock in at fifteen hours [1]. We’re still seven years away from that hundred year milestone but barring a remarkable turnaround it seems Keynes’ prediction will be proved wrong, and drastically.

Not only are people generally working between 35 and 50 hours a week – depending on country, role etc. – but many are engaged in the uniquely 21st century phenomenon of the side-hustle. According to research for the Trades Union Congress, one in seven workers in Britain now partake in gig-economy jobs like Uber or Amazon delivery at least once a week, many of them on top of full-time employment [2].

Meanwhile, digital tools have made it possible to work from pretty much anywhere, at pretty much any time. This was supposed to usher in a new age of liberation: the worker, no longer constrained by their office environment or nine-to-five schedule, is now free to live the life they always wanted. In reality, it has just meant the expectation of swift email correspondence has extended its lebensraum to the realms of evenings, weekends and even holidays. That edenic notion of freetime signed off its suicide note with a customary “sent from my iPhone” footer.

The sense of never-ending malaise that occupies the modern employee is perhaps best captured by the TV show Severance. Centering around a fictional procedure that severs the work self from the free-time self, the show darkly and comically skewers the torturous undertakings the zombified worker self is made to endure by the malevolent corporation that employs him in this inescapable labour prison, the ramifications of which naturally spill out from their office containment to bruise each self equally. It’s not hard to see why viewers are able to relate.

Keynes’ prediction was based on the myriad changes imbued upon 20th century work culture by  technological innovations and societal adjustments in the wake of the industrial revolution. In Keynes’ lifetime, the average workday dropped from fourteen hours a day to eight [3]. Understanding that greater advancements were yet to come, Keynes posited that the trend would continue.

He was right that further innovations in tech would make working practices substantially easier, with everything from printers to Excel to Zoom obvious examples. But while those advancements reduced the amount of time it takes workers to complete everyday tasks, that simply meant workers were now expected to undertake more tasks within their allotted nine-to-five (or often longer) shifts.

Keynes’ great contemporary, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, diagnosed many of the issues with modern work culture in his 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness”. Russell wrote, “A great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work” [4].

Perhaps more prudently, with an evergreen tinge, he wrote:

Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen instead to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines. [5]

With Keynes’ foreseen fifteen-hour week out the window, then, how much should we work, really? Provided we have tasks to fulfil, a sense of pride in our roles that dictates our output should be of a certain quality, and a life outside of work from which we hope to derive pleasure and meaning, what is the optimum time we should give to our professional endeavours? The answer is dependent on our role, abilities, temperaments and life circumstances, of course. But there are those advocating specific solutions, and it’s worth assessing the merits of each.

What a way to make a living

The nine-to-five is very much the status quo when it comes to our working schedules. It’s become the parlance in and of itself: nine-to-five equals work, even when in many cases employers are dragging the last of those numbers up and up and up.

The nine-to-five got its start in 1926 under Henry Ford at his namesake Ford Motor Company [6]. At the time, it was a reduction in working hours that was celebrated for obvious reasons. Ford workers manned the assembly line. By putting them on eight-hour shifts, they were able to cover the 24-hour day in three shifts without putting undue demands on staff. Once Ford set the ball rolling and the new schedule proved successful, the system was then adopted in many countries around the world and persisted almost unquestioned (in any meaningful sense) until the pandemic in 2020.

Covid disrupted a litany of accepted notions regarding working practices. Once the flexibility of home working was made commonplace (and even governmentally mandated), it was only a matter of time before workers started to question why they couldn’t add a little flexibility to their hours too.

The nine-to-five has some obvious flaws. In 1926, the expectation was that the man of the house would work while his wife stayed home and dealt with domestic and child-rearing duties. Obviously things have progressed since then. Nowadays, most families consist of two workers. Juggling parental obligations around an in-office nine-to-five is extremely difficult and often involves sacrificing either valuable time with one’s child or professional progress.

The most damning argument against the nine-to-five is that studies show it to be inefficient. A 2016 survey of 1,989 UK office workers found that over the course of an eight-hour workday, the average employee works for two hours and 53 minutes [7]. The rest of the time is spent reading the news, browsing social media, eating, socialising, taking cigarette breaks, and searching for new jobs. Essentially, people are dragging out their tasks to fill the time, and are less fulfilled, less productive, less happy and less healthy for it.

In response to the limitations associated with the traditional nine-to-five five-day week, variations on the formula are becoming increasingly prevalent, as well as increasingly in-demand.

The four-day week

Four-day work weeks are becoming more common. Advocates claim that by providing employees with an extra day of rest, the four-day work week reduces employee anxiety and stress while facilitating better sleep and more time to exercise. Those benefits then pay dividends when it comes to the quality of employee output and increased productivity.

The biggest recent study on the subject was a report by the advocacy groups 4 Day Week Global and 4 Day Week Campaign, with the assistance of researchers from Boston College and the University of Cambridge. The report’s findings show that roughly 40% of respondents said they experienced less work-related stress, and 71% reported lower levels of burnout. More than 40% said their mental health had improved, with significant numbers of employees reporting decreases in anxiety and negative emotions [8].

Nearly half of workers involved said they weren’t as tired as they were before the experiment, and 40% said it was easier to get to sleep. In the end, 96% of employees said they preferred four-day schedules. At the same time, company revenue increased by an average of roughly 1% over the six month period, while employee turnover and absenteeism went down. Almost all of the businesses in the program said they planned to continue with a four-day work week once the experiment was over [9].

The data is striking, and backed up in other studies. In 2019, Microsoft Japan introduced a four day working week and reported a 40% boost in productivity [10]. In Sweden, a two-year government study conducted from 2015-17 on retirement-home workers in Gothenburg found that at the end of the study people were happier, less stressed, and enjoyed work more [11].

Another added benefit of the four-day week is environmental. A study by the University of Massachusetts Amherst found that a 10% reduction in working hours cut an individual’s carbon footprint by 8.6% [12]. Minimising the amount of days workers are commuting can have a drastic environmental impact, and should be a further consideration for those thinking of moving away from the five-day nine-to-five.

The 5-hour workday

Some argue that rather than removing a whole day from the week, it is more efficient to reduce the number of hours worked a day.

Alex Pang, founder of Silicon Valley consultancy Strategy and Rest, visiting scholar at Stanford University, and the author of Rest and The Distraction Addiction, notes that “research indicates that five hours is about the maximum that most of us can concentrate hard on something” [13].

The notion of the five-hour workday gained notoriety through Tower Padel Boards, an online, direct-to-consumer company that sells stand-up paddleboards. In 2015, the company’s CEO Stephan Aarstol offered his employees a deal: if they figured out how to do the same work in less time, they could keep the same salary and leave at 1pm. He also implemented a 5% profit sharing plan, increasing hourly pay [14]. On the day the company announced the change on its website, it broke its previous daily sales record, booking $50,000 in sales for the first time. By the end of the month, it had sold $1.4m worth of paddleboards, breaking its previous monthly sales record by $600,000.

Inspired by what he saw, David Rhoads, CEO of Blue Street Capital, a California-based company that arranges financing for enterprise IT systems, decided to try this new work strategy out for himself. Three months after starting Blue Street Capital’s five-hour workday trial, David found that while they had cut the length of the workweek by three-eighths, the number of calls his employees made per person had doubled. David made the five-hour workday a permanent feature after three months. Three years in, revenues had gone up every year – 30% the first year, 30% the second – while the company grew from nine to seventeen employees [15].

The five-hour workday, like all approaches, has its flaws. Research shows that people’s creativity fades after five hours of concentration – but not all jobs are creative. Taking the original Ford model as an example, assembly line workers have no reason (efficiency-wise) to shorten their workdays. The same is true for those in administrative roles, those in call centres, and all sorts of other professions.

Jan-Emmanuel de Neve, associate professor of economics and strategy at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, is an advocate of the five-hour workday. He says his research reinforces the argument that five-hour working days lead to greater employee wellbeing, which in turn leads to greater productivity. But he also warns that working in these more limited bursts can actually result in greater employee stress [16].

Associate professor in strategic human resource management at the University of Reading’s Henley Business School Rita Fontinha agrees, saying: “While a shorter work day could result in better time management and promote concentration, individuals may feel an added pressure to complete tasks on time” [17].

The death of leisure

In his aforementioned 1932 essay, Russell observed that, “The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich” [18]. But in 21st century society, we seem to have gone one further: it seems to have become far fetched that anyone at all might have leisure. Free time has been annexxed by 24/7 work schedules and commercialised by social media sites so that even the most lackadaisical of weekend pursuits are increasingly undertaken “for the gram” rather than for the inherent joy in the activity. The self-improvement zeitgeist has similarly snatched away any pastimes that could potentially be filed under ‘trivial’. As Wessie du Toit notes in the New Statesman:

Meditation and exercise look suspiciously like personal optimisation. Artistic vocations centre on tireless self-promotion to a virtual audience. A movement of “homesteaders” churning their own butter and knitting their own jumpers are simply cosplaying older forms of work, and probably posting the results on Instagram. [19]

What to do

Amongst a society that has placed a premium on work and prizes workaholics, Russell’s praise for idleness feels more needed and yet further away than ever. Trends like the Great Resignation and “quiet quitting” demonstrate that worker dissatisfaction is starting to permeate the workforce at large. Shifts to a four-day work week or five-hour workday could be solutions, granting employees autonomy and opportunity for rest at little to no cost to business – potentially even improving productivity and profits.

But given it took a global pandemic to even vaguely move the world away from Henry Ford’s modus operandi first adopted some 97 years ago, it would be optimistic to think such large-scale changes are on their way any time soon.