The Slow Death of the Five-Day Workweek

Borne out of necessity, the five-day workweek was introduced in the early 20th century. In an age of new technology and increased awareness of workers’ rights, a limited workweek allowed employers to meet employee demands while ensuring organizational productivity. In 1926, Henry Ford adopted the five-day work-week for his company, creating a standard that the rest of the world would follow. Over the next decade the trend would spread across the United States and in 1938 this standard, along with the forty-hour work week, would become law. For employees, this allowed them control over the number of hours an employer could expect them to work, while for employers, the new standard increased employee satisfaction and productivity.

After almost a century of use, the five-day workweek has become a consistent expectation for the American worker and their employers, but studies show that this may not be the most effective use of our time. Over the last eighty years, the introduction of new technology has changed the way we approach our workweek and the work that we do. In the modern world of hyper-connectedness, we no longer need to be in the office to access our work. The average American spends 8 to 10 hours a day in the office, often working more than forty hours a week and consistently bringing work home with them.

While many Americans justify their constant connection to work by citing the need for financial security, productivity, and happiness, research shows that this may be counterproductive. While financial security may be gained through working additional hours, studies indicate that longer hours at work result in lowered mental and physical health, decreased productivity, and decreased employee satisfaction. Shortening the workweek to four days a week, or in some cases simply capping the workweek at forty hours, created a healthier environment, drastically improving employee productivity, mental and physical well-being, as well as job satisfaction.

While the four-day workweek may not yet be a standard, many companies have taken the research to heart, implementing shorter, more condensed schedules for workers. Some have chosen to go to four-day, ten-hour workdays, while others offer their employees flexibility, implementing flex-time and/or work from home days as an alternative to spending five-days a week in the office. The approaches these companies take vary, but the results remain the same. Companies utilizing a shorter schedule report increased employee retention and satisfaction, as well as increased focus during the workweek and improved organizational productivity.

While no solution is perfect, modern research and corporate case studies suggest that sticking with the traditional five-day workweek results in diminished returns for both employer and employee. Perhaps we can take not from Henry Ford’s book but lead the way in implementing a modern and effective approach to the workweek. If companies shift their focus to productivity and employee satisfaction, not only would we create a more healthy workplace but maybe, like in the past, the rest of the world will follow.

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