December 26, 2013

What is the Ideal Work Week?

Woman Behind ClockIn a hotly contested candidate market, the most progressive employers are beginning to see that employee retention and/or revitalization is as important as making new hires. In many respects, it can be more important as studies show that internally promoted candidates are both cheaper and regularly outperform externally appointed candidates.

One way to increase both employee retention (and your attractiveness to external talent incidentally) is to improve your work life balance. Yes, a Hay Group study has shown that 17 percent of staff in firms that support work life balance plan to leave their jobs in the next two years, compared to 27 percent of staff in firms where work life balance is not supported.

Despite these statistics showing the value of work life balance, studies show that the UK and U.S. are embedded in an unhealthy long-hours culture, with 75 percent of Americans working long hours, i.e. over 40 hours a week, with 33 percent working over 50 hours a week. There is a similar picture in the UK with an Austin Knight study showing that 2 out 3 employees are working over 40 hours a week and 25 percent are working over 50 hours a week.

So, there is clearly a long-hours culture operating in many  workplaces, which is harming work life balance and harming staff retention. This suggests employers should be looking at initiatives to reduce sustained overworking and get rid of the long-hours culture. So, while we can see it’s important to reduce hours, by how much should these hours be reduced? Or to put it another way, what is the ideal work week? You can see my thoughts on this below:

Not more than 40 hours? Research shows that after 40 hours of work in a week, productivity drops by 50 percent, and employees who work for 60 hours will see an incremental or additional reduction in productivity once they have done this for a period of four weeks. As well as this, research shows that people who work 11 hours a day are more than twice as likely to be depressed than those working 8 hours, which could itself lead to further disengagement and sick days. So, there is a strong argument that the ideal work week should be not more than 40 hours, so perhaps between 35 and 40 hours.

The four-day work week? The idea of the four day working week was originated by American labor union leader Walter Reuther, but it has not caught on. But, in a world where the incidence of families with both parents working is rising dramatically, it seems that the idea of flexible working and perhaps working a four-day week may be relevant and even an ideal solution to the issues that working parents (and especially working mothers) face. It may also be beneficial to the company bottom line as when Utah introduced four day weeks for many of its state employees in 2008; they saw boosts in productivity and worker satisfaction. Another company, called 37signals, also reported increases in productivity after moving to four-day weeks. It probably needs more scientific proof, but there is growing evidence that a four-day working week could be extremely beneficial to both employees and employers.

A 25-hour work week?  Now, I acknowledge that this is very radical; I am just putting it out there. Science Nordic’s James W Vaupel, head of the Danish Max Planck research centre, believes that the 40-hour week is totally outdated at a point in time when people are living and working longer, (e.g. official retirement ages are climbing or being removed all together). It is his belief that people should work 25 hours with a view to working much longer, perhaps until they are 80. This does not mean that people should work more total hours over their lifetime, but that it should be spread out over a longer time period as this is beneficial to people at all stages of life. For example, a 25-hour working week means younger people can spend more time with their kids or expanding themselves and older people who have more time on their hands can use work to keep them active. In fact, studies show that older people who work part-time are healthier than those who do not. I realize this is a radical argument, but it certainly got me thinking.

As for where I stand, I feel the ideal working week is somewhere between four or five days a week, but I think due to the challenging business world we live in, periods of intensity are required in order to achieve things and make ground against the competition. However, while I am not quite ready to surrender to the concept of a 25-hour week, I do believe in the idea of working into my 70s as a way of preserving my health; so, something will have to give.


Read more in Work Life Balance

Kazim Ladimeji is a Chartered Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, and has been a practicing HR professional for 14 years. Kazim is the Director of The Career Cafe: a resource for start-ups, small business and job seekers.