On Edge is a series about stress in 2017.
In the early 1800s, Americans worked between 10 and 16 hours a day, six days a week. The slogan for socialist Robert Owen’s shorter-workday campaign in 1810 was "Eight hours' labour, Eight hours' recreation, Eight hours' rest.” Back then an eight-hour workday was work-life balance.
Labor unions eventually won a 12-hour day, then a 10-hour day, and finally an eight-hour day. Even then, six-day workweeks were the norm until about a century ago, when Ford Motor Company granted its workers two full days of rest and started a trend.
Today there are whole organizations dedicated to rallying even shorter workweeks. We see ourselves as suffering from overwork. But would more leisure time actually improve our health?
There’s no question that overworking leads to accidents. Allard Dembe, a professor at the Ohio State University College of Public Health, found that employees’ risk of suffering an industrial accident increases by 37 percent when they work more than 12 hours a day, and by 61 percent when they work overtime.
Illness, too, increases with overworking. Dembe’s research suggests that women working 60-hour workweeks are three times more likely than women working 40 hours to get heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or arthritis. Other research indicates that employees working more than 11 hours a day are more than twice as likely to develop depression than employees working eight-hour days. There’s also a correlation between overworking and Type 2 diabetes, as well as stroke risk. In an article for The Conversation, Dembe concluded that “Working just a bit more, an average of 41 to 50 hours per week, over many years appeared to substantially increase the long-term risk of disease.”
More from Tonic:
Fortunately, the average American works no more than eight hours a day, and this is likely an overestimate. Although average workweek hours have crept up over the last few decades (from 38.1 hours per week in 1980 to 38.7 hours per week in 2015), a longer trend suggests that soon we’ll all be working fewer hours and days, not more. The late Nobel-prize winning economist Robert Fogel calculated that Americans’ leisure time tripled between 1880 and 1995, while their work-time nearly halved. Using this trend, he predicted that by 2040 less than one-fourth of our time outside of sleep, meals, and hygiene will be spent on paid work.
If our workweeks do get shorter either by campaigning or necessity, will we become healthier? It’s tempting to conclude that, since health risks increase with long hours, they would decrease with a four-day workweek. But some experts think this deduction is too simplistic. “I doubt the relationship [between work hours and health] is linear,” Dembe says. Instead, his studies suggest that “there may be some thresholds past which health risks become significantly elevated,” like working 12-hour days.
But these thresholds depend on the person and hinge “on a variety of circumstances,” Dembe says. As the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains, “I find that there are very few things that are unambiguously good for everyone.”
For some, a four-day workweek could signal newfound freedom to pursue well-being and meaning outside of work. Felicitas Betzl, managing director of the Scotland-based digital agency Serps Invaders, says that her company’s adoption of a four-day workweek reduced employee overtime by 90 percent and staff absence by 95 percent. She thinks her employees are happier. On Monday mornings, “everyone is well-rested and ready to roar.”
She described one employee in particular, who had been eating badly and not taking care of herself while working five days a week. Getting three-day weekends gave her time to prepare healthier meals, and she started going to the gym on Fridays when it wasn’t so busy. “I think it completely changed her life. She lost weight and was a lot happier,” Betzl says. Another staff member finally found time to train for a marathon.
But others may not benefit from extra time. It depends on what you do with your new leisure. A recent article on four-day workweeks in The Guardian opined that working less would translate to more “well-rounded individuals.” But it’s also possible that, for many, more time would just mean more TV. “It seems to me that a four-day work week would be a blessing for those people whose life is completely absorbed by work or family obligations,” Csikszentmihalyi tells me. “But it would be a curse for those whose life is otherwise empty, and work gives them purpose and a way to reach it.”
Shorter workweeks could entail other sacrifices, too. “The health of some workers would probably be improved, but they would probably take home less pay at the end of the week,” says John Pencavel, a professor of economics at Stanford. “There’s no free lunch.” Or, in order to clock the same amount of hours and secure the same pay, shorter workweeks would mean longer work days. Because Serps employees work one fewer day than most people, they work longer hours each day. Betzl says this was a tough transition. Considering health risks are most closely tied to hours worked, would a four-day workweek with total hours equalling a five-day workweek bring any real benefit?
In short, a four-day workweek is probably not a panacea. This is why University of Melbourne sociologist Leah Ruppanner, who has studied workday length and family balance, advises employers to provide workers with flexibility to meet their own demands and personalities. “Shortening the workweek is one dimension of workplace flexibility, but [it] is not the magic bullet.” Modern lives, she explains, are not so simple.
Read This Next: We're Working Nurses to Death