The Death of the Eight Hour Workday?

Posted on 9 February 2024 by IRIS FMP

Categories: CultureGlobal HR

Stressed woman, working in a office

What was once a 19th Century socialist dream, the traditional 8-hour workday is in danger of becoming an outdated concept. The rise of remote working and less structured work patterns has led to far greater flexibility across multiple industries.

So, is an 8-hour workday an outdated approach that ran its course a long time ago? Does it actually harm productivity and have a negative impact on work-life balance? Here, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of the standard 8-hour workday and whether it’s time to bid farewell to what was, after all, an idea born in Victorian times.

Why was the 8-hour workday introduced?

The 8-hour workday was introduced by Welsh textile mill owner and social reformer Robert Owen two centuries ago. His mantra ‘8-hours labor, 8-hours recreation, 8-hours rest’ became a slogan for the Industrial Revolution when exploited factory employees, including children, were expected to put in up to 16 hours of manual labor per day in atrocious conditions.

Soon, labor unions had forced an 8-hour workday across numerous US industries. Then Henry Ford took it one step further in the 1920s by mandating a five-day, 40-hour workweek, and in 1940 Congress made a 40-hour workweek official in America.

Let’s face it, we’ve moved on from the Industrial Revolution and modern working life looks very different now to what it once did. Yet like our ancestors, many of us are still required to work 8-hour days, mostly in one continuous block punctuated only by a lunch break. But does working life have to be like this? Is there a better, more productive way of working in the digital age than clocking on for a routine 8-hour workday, 5 days a week?

According to the Office for National Statistics, the average UK worker works 36.4 hours per week. However, this doesn’t reflect how efficient or productive they’ve been during that time. With modern working habits constantly evolving and tools that help us work faster and on multiple tasks at once, there’s a strong argument that says the 8-hour working day has become a relic of the past.

How many productive hours are there in an 8-hour workday?

It may come as a surprise, but studies have shown the average UK worker is productive for less than three hours out of a standard 8-hour working day. That’s a lot of downtime, with social media, trawling news websites, and talking to colleagues listed as the main distractions affecting productivity.

So, rather than regular 8-hour workday shifts, is there a better way to improve productivity in the workplace, and is it time to change our attitudes towards old-fashioned working practices for good?

1. Add more workday structure

According to research, how employees structure their workday is far more important than the actual hours they work. Interestingly, the research suggests that the length of a workday is almost irrelevant. What really matters is how workers structure their day. More to the point, people who took regular short breaks were far more productive than others who worked longer hours. So, instead of your staff asking, ‘What can I achieve in an 8-hour day?’ it’s more beneficial for them to think ‘What can I get done in an hour?’

What does this look like on the clock? The ideal work-to-break ratio was 52 minutes of work followed by 17 minutes of rest. People who followed this work pattern were able to focus better than those working for longer periods in one go. When they felt tired or fatigued, which was usually after around an hour, they took a short break and completely switched off from work. When they returned, they were refreshed, re-focussed, and ready for another productive hour before their next break.

2. Encourage regular breaks

While the ideal work-to-rest ratio may appear difficult to attain, it should come naturally for most people. After all, the brain functions in bursts of high energy lasting roughly one hour followed by a 15-20 minute period of low energy.

This fluctuation in energy and focus has a direct effect on workflow as spells of high productivity precede less productive periods when employees begin to feel tired and become easily distracted. Therefore, instead of working for an hour and then battling through tiredness and distractions as productivity levels dip, workers should be encouraged to listen to their brain. It’s probably telling them it’s time to take a much-needed break from their work.

How should you plan an 8-hour workday at your organization?

The 8-hour workday will only suit most workers’ daily patterns if they split their time into strategic chunks. That means hourly periods of work followed by regular breaks that align with natural energy flows.

It’s easier for employees to take breaks from work when they know they’re going to make them more productive at their job. Yet in reality, employees often battle on through tiredness and fatigue, negatively affecting the quality of their work. Not only that, but the breaks people take are often spent trawling social media, watching YouTube, or checking emails which don’t allow them to relax and switch off.

When employees align their natural energy with peak periods of productivity, it will ensure work runs smoothly. If your organization includes employees who remain determined to make an 8-hour workday work for them consider the following actions.

Split days into hourly sections

It’s only natural to plan ahead, so most workers look at what they need to accomplish by the end of the day, week, or month. However, humans are more effective when they focus on the task that’s directly in front of them, and what can be accomplished right now.

Breaking an 8-hour workday into manageable hour-long chunks helps employees simplify heavyweight tasks and make them more productive. Hopefully, they’ll soon begin to strike the perfect balance between work and periods of rest.

Honor the rules

A work-break strategy can only be effective if employees observe the rules closely. Peak energy levels align with their most productive periods for a relatively short period of time. So, if staff are spending their work breaks texting friends or checking Facebook, they’re disrespecting their working hour and defeating the purpose of this approach to an 8-hour workday.

Encourage proper rest breaks

We have already touched on the importance of taking regular rest breaks from work. Employees who take frequent rests are more productive than those who don’t. Similarly, those who gear their breaks around relaxation perform better than those who, when resting, have difficulty switching off from work.

To boost productivity, employees should move away from their computer and smartphone and engage in activities like walking, reading, and chatting instead. This will help to remove themselves from their work and recharge their batteries before they return. So, the next time your employees are tempted to read emails or make calls during a particularly busy period, they should try and strongly resist so that ‘breaks’ don’t become an extension of their working day.

Stick to a schedule

When employees only take work breaks when they’re tired, they may have already missed the prime window of peak productivity. Keeping to a work-rest schedule is beneficial on two levels – staff will engage with work at their most productive times, and they’ll also rest when they’re least productive.

It’s worth remembering that employees will always be more productive when they rest for short periods between spells of work, rather than continue working when tired and distracted. This approach is a world away from the traditional 8-hour workday where breaks were few and far between and generally amounted to a lunch hour.

As modern working styles continue to change, breaking the day into periods of work and rest in line with natural energy levels will ensure maximum productivity in the workplace, and more time away from work for employees to do the things they enjoy.  

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