40 Hours. That is the golden number that professionals all around the world live by today. The 40-hour work week has become an international standard, except in some exceptional cases. For the most part, companies around the world have adopted this number as the standard by which the average employee shall dedicate their time towards their work.

With the Covid-19 pandemic ravaging the global economy, companies have switched to more flexible working hours and a work-from-home model to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. This has resulted in the blurring of the line between work and life. The result is an overall rise in stress levels and overwork, leading many to question whether the 40-hour work week is still viable. However, this brings up an interesting question. Where did this number even come from? And why have companies adhered to it for decades?

In The Beginning
There is an interesting story to tell here, one that is over a decade old. The origins of the 40-hour work week can be traced back to the 19th century. Around the mid-1800s, the industrial revolution has just come to an end, and most modern cities have completed the transition to efficient manufacturing processes.

Talks of better working conditions began to arise among the working class, as wages were low, and hours could be as long as 80-100 a week. In 1866, a new organization in the United States named the National Labor Union asked Congress to pass a law mandating the eight-hour workday. Though their efforts failed, they inspired Americans across the country to support labor reform over the next few decades.

Just one year later, the Illinois legislature passed a law mandating an eight-hour workday. Many employers refused to cooperate, and a massive strike erupted in Chicago. That day became known as “May Day.” The legislature itself was quite flawed, having several loopholes and was generally ineffective.

Making Progress
The biggest headway for the worker’s movement came in 1869, when President Ulysses S. Grant issued a proclamation that guaranteed a stable wage and an eight-hour workday — but only for government workers. However, Grant’s decision encouraged private-sector workers to push for the same rights.

By 1886, labor organizations called for a national strike in support of a shorter workday. More than 300,000 workers turned out across the country. In Chicago, demonstrators fought with police over the next few days. Many on both sides were wounded or killed in an event that is now known as the “Haymarket Affair.” The US government would soon start tracking working hours nationally, revealing a shocking average of around 100 hours being worked a week by the average manufacturing employee.

With even the government endorsing a 40-hour work week, private enterprise began to feel pressured to implement a similar policy. By 1916, congress passed the Adamson Act, a federal law that established an eight-hour workday for interstate railroad workers. The Supreme Court constitutionalized the act in 1917.

In 1926, Ford Motor Companies adopted the five-day, 40-hour work week. Many have argued that this was the domino that eventually led to the adoption of a similar policy across the world.

Does it Work?
Now that we know the origin of 40-hour work weeks, the next question to ask is: is it effective? There have been many studies conducted on the negative implications of overwork and all show that people who regularly work overtime are less healthy, more likely to make mistakes, and less productive compared to those who work 40 hours per week.

While the 40-hour work week was proven to be a much-needed improvement over working conditions a century ago, many have argued that it has become obsolete in the face of modern developments. Since modern technology has made it possible for employees to access their work anywhere – whether that is via their cell phones or laptops – they can stay plugged in even after they leave the office.

It has also been shown that the most productive companies are not necessarily the ones who work the most hours. In 2017, data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that countries with the highest average number of working hours were some of the least productive. Whereas Luxembourg, the most productive country, had an average work week of just 29 hours.


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