In 1929, British economist John Maynard Keynes gave a now-famous lecture in which he predicted that later generations would work only 15 hours per week because of advanced technology. In 2000, MIT biophysicist and theoretical ecologist Erik Rauch said we could do even less: that an average worker only needs to work 11 hours per week to get as much done as 40 hours in 1950.
Of course, working so few hours isn’t possible in the current system, for income reasons, but also because of how our identity, status, and well-being tends to be wrapped up in our careers. When you go to a job, you meet people, socialize, and feel like you’re contributing to society. Being unemployed is regularly associated with negative mental and physical health consequences.
We know that working too much is bad for you, but what’s the minimum amount of work we should do to reap all the above rewards? No one had tried to answer that question, till now: A new study in Social Science and Medicine found that we only need to work eight hours a week total—less than one average 8.5-hour American work day—to get the psychological perks of working. After eight hours, well-being plateaus.
“It is like taking Vitamin C—we all need a certain dose, but taking it more than necessary does not bring any additional health benefits, and taking overly large amounts can actually have a harmful effect,” said Daiga Kamerade, first author and a sociologist at the University of Salford in England. At a certain point, overwork leads to burnout and negative mental health.
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The study used data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study, which has observations from more than 80,000 people. The researchers looked at how changes in the amount of hours people worked affected mental health over time, and asked at what point a person's well-being improved. For most, the shift to positive well-being took one to eight hours of paid work, much less than the two to three days they expected to find, Kamerade said.
As we confront the fact that machines could make many jobs redundant, the authors suggested a new way to conceptualize our working future. There could be a redistribution of working hours, they wrote, so that people still have access to employment, but a dramatically reduced work week—well beyond the calls for four-day work weeks.
Kamerade said that no one had yet asked what the minimum number of working hours was to achieve positive mental health, and it was a missing piece of evidence in the discussion about why it is we work so much, especially when anywhere between 9 and 47 percent of jobs in developed countries could be lost to automation.
An important caveat to the study, however, is that it controlled for income. That means that the researchers’ finding about well-being only applies if people who work one day a week make the same amount of money as someone who works more. If we actually wanted to work eight-hour weeks, it would require policy changes, like taxes, universal income, or wealth redistribution, so as not to "increase material hardship of those at the bottom of the labor market,” said Alex Wood, a researcher at Oxford University, who studies the impact of technology on working conditions and labor relations, and who wasn't involved in the new research.
Wood said that the findings come at a crucial moment when lawmakers are thinking about the interplay of jobs, automation, and the effect of jobs on health and the planet. Several employers in Sweden recently tried out six-hour work days. The BBC reported than in the first 18 months, nurses who took part had fewer sick days, felt their health was better, and increased their productivity.
Moving towards less work would have to mean actually working less, not cramming a whole week of work into eight hours, Wood said. Ultimately, that would mean reframing our ideas around consumption—since there might be less to consume with less labor—and deciding to focus more on leisure time. If we can manage that, instead of fearing the rise of automation, we could try and see it as an opportunity to move away from our work-centered culture.
“Human beings are not built to be subordinated to others for work,” Ewan McGaughey, a senior lecturer at King’s College, London, and a research associate at the Centre for Business Research at Cambridge University, said. “We are social animals who find value in contributing to society, but we also value leisure, family, and community. All these things require less working time.”
McGaughey thinks that technology will only have a negative impact on our relationship with work if we let it. But social policies and laws could provide capital for jobs, job guarantees, and full employment with fair wages—all at lower hours.
Fewer work hours might allow us to get some well-being perks from our free time, too, Brendan Burchell said, a sociology researcher at The University of Cambridge, and co-author on the study. Now, all most people really do in their spare time is get ready to go back to work. We wash our clothes, buy groceries, clean our homes.
“If we are going to move towards this time in the future when we've got more leisure time because robots and intelligent machines can do more of our work," Burchell said, "We ought to take it seriously in school to educate people to have good leisure as well as educating them to be good employees.”