If you know me, you know that I'm not a fan of the standard 8 hour workday. And alot of that has to do with my outside of work activities, which mainly involve working on my own websites and trying to pick up as much technical knowledge as I can muster in a day. And lately I've noticed that a full day, just isn't enough. So I stopped to wonder just how 8 hours could take such a toll on my own work.
If you only work 8 hours per day, then you can probably get alot of extra hours in for personal work and family and friends and going to the gym and such per day. But that's IF we work 8 hours per day. That's the norm for most people in this day and age, and a century ago as well. We don't question it, we just work it. And based on the "I hate my job" memes that I've read recently on random timelines, no one is really enjoying their lives right now and I don't think work is necessarily behind it, but the amount of work. So let's talk about where it all began, the 8 hour workday for a minute.
The Traditional 8 Hour Day
So before I talk about why we probably need an hours per day overhaul, I'll first talk about the history of the 8 hour workday, which is somewhat fascinating. Don't you ever wonder why you have to be in your chair from 9 to 6?
The 8 hour work day goes way back to the Industrial Revolution in Britain and it was a giant struggle to achieve. Robert Owen, a welsh industrialist first introduced the 10 hour workday in 1810, and later evolved that into the 8 hour work day around 1817, with the following slogan:
Eight hours labour, Eight hours recreation, Eight hours rest
He was a bit different though. He was one of the founders of utopian socialism and he ran an experimental 1000 person colony in which he could practice his form of governance. But he realized the importance of his workers, unlike many other employers at the time. Sounds like a pretty cool guy.
And if we look at the Wiki page, because who else would have info on the 8 hour work day, then we can see that the 8-hour work day was the white whale for many many workers during the late 1800's and early 1900's. Countless workers striked and demanded that their work days be shortened and rightfully so, as the average workday back then would be around 14-16 hours.
In the United States, the 8 hour work day slowly gained acceptance as it began to target different job sectors throughout the decades. On May 19, 1869, President Ulysses Grant issued a National Eight Hour Law Proclamation which unfortunately didn't really take too well. In 1914, Ford took a bold step by doubling its employees salaries and bringing the work day down to 8 hours. Many other business owners assumed he was mad and that his business would collapse. But quite on the contrary. Ford managed to double it's gross revenue due to the increased productivity of their employees within a year. Soon after many other business entities followed with the same. And slowly after that it became the norm. Which brings us to today.
Is It Outdated Once Again?
At one point in time the 12-14 work day seemed normal to most people. In fact it might have been welcomed, as more work hours equals more financial stability. However, it was eventually found to be too extraneous on workers, particularly during the Industrial Revolution where most jobs required a hefty amount of physical labor. Karl Marx himself had this to say about it:
"By extending the working day, therefore, capitalist production...not only produces a deterioration of human labour power by robbing it of its normal moral and physical conditions of development and activity, but also produces the premature exhaustion and death of this labour power itself." - Karl Marx
True today as it was back then. And so as I mentioned 12 hours turned to 10 hours, and 10 hours to 8. And it's remained there for over a century now. So I propose that question. Is the 8 hour workday outdated and in need of an overhaul? Unlike the 1900's, most of us now have to drive in order to get to our workplaces. We have new laws that require us to spend time eating food. And we have salaried employees now, which can work until the sun comes up without any extra compensation. But the standard workday still remains at 8 hours regardless. We could add "mandatory car inspections daily" to the list of our daily tasks, and I have a feeling we'd still have to work 8 hours.
Let's Follow In Sweden's Example
Some countries and companies however have started experimenting with fewer hours for their employees. Sweden is a country notorious for striving to achieve a better work/life balance for many of its employees. Grrr. How dare they. Here is an article from the BBC for example taking a look at Sweden's 6-hour workday and it's benefits. While it does state that the results were inconclusive, it also found that many people who worked only 6 hours per day performed at a higher level. This parallels how when Ford brought the workday down to 8 hours from 10, productivity also exponentially grew.
I think that's how human nature works however. If I gave you 20 random pieces to a puzzle and told you that you had 12 hours to complete it, you would find it to be a tedious and boring task, much like my job. However if I gave you those same pieces but told you that you had only 15 minutes to find the solution, you would have to work exponentially harder to solve it.
The New 12 Hour Day
So let's break down this 8 hour mythological work day and find out just how many hours we're probably spending at work or in the process that is work in this day and age. And while this is mainly based off of my own personal work experience and co-workers, it's not too far off from where most people with office jobs are finding themselves nowadays I would imagine, as I've seen it time and time again.
Most of us at a minimum have to spend 8 hours in our chairs with our bosses watching us from an awkward angle. So that's a given 8 hours guaranteed. And many people will work more, because when the boss leaves you can finally play catch up on that report you forgot to fix for the next days meeting. Most jobs that I've had so far have been salaried, which means, 8 hours is just a formality. You can work 5 hours, or you can work 12 hours. Work 5 hours daily and see what happens. I worked somewhere close to the latter usually putting in 9 hours, with the occasional 10 maybe twice a week. Many people I know work 10 hours a day be default because they've become accustomed to that routine. So I'll average that out to 9 hours.
Somewhere in between that day, we have to eat lunch. Legally. At least in California, you're allowed a 30 minute meal period if you're going to be working more than 6 hours. And unfortunately/fortunately, most companies will frown upon you skipping lunch. So I'll add an hour to that list because us programmers like our 1hr lunches. So now I'm at the 10 hour mark.
Unfortunately, we also don't teleport to our jobs just yet :/ one day. But for now our particles remain intact and we have to move them manually, which normally means, driving. Unless you live in Los Angeles, California, in which case it means, traffic. On average, my one way trip to work averages about 45 minutes, and about 50 minutes going home. And while some people might have a 10 minute bike ride to work, everyone I know at work has at a minimum, a 45 minute drive. So we'll use that as a baseline because there's no way that it's just my office with these commute times. I'll round up to an hour actually, as parking isn't instant either. And walking from the parking structure to the office also takes time. And looking for parking when you get home takes time, and don't let me get started on garbage day parking. So many non instant moments in life unfortunately.
That brings us to about 2 hours in driving, or being inside of our cars at least, per day. So we're at 12 hours now. And I'm not fully done just yet. Almost, but there are still a few things that we don't take into account normally. We have to get ready to go to work. This one is totally optional and up to you. You can wake up, in your car, and walk in to work in that same manner. Unfortunately, I'm still not there yet in life, so I wake up, make coffee, eat breakfast and shower, which takes me about about 30 minutes on average.
12.5 hours so far. That's a far distance from the 8 that we're so used to hearing about. And this is something that most of us will probably never notice as the 8 hour day has become the de-factor standard for work hours. We need our morning breakfast, and traffic is unavoidable in larger cities, and 8 hours of work are guaranteed in the to do list. 12 hours at a minimum. If you're the kind of person who makes friends, good for you, and enjoy a conversation with your co-workers after work, or that extra coffee break in the day, then say hello to hour 13. Which means that if you were to get the 8 hours of "recommended" sleep for a human being in a day, you would end up with a whopping 3 hours extra for your own personal human existence.
My hours are a tad bit on the exaggerated side, but not by much unfortunately. I, on a normal day, wake up at 8:30am and get home from work at around the same time, 8:30pm. That's 12 hours on average. And at some point at night, I will end up working from home for at least an hour, which puts me in the 13hr category. And in order to stretch the day out, I only sleep about 5 hours per day, which is exhausting the older I seem to get. The problem of course, is that eventually lack of sleep will catch up to you and your body will feel it. And sacrificing your health for a 12h + 8h - 24h = 4 hour a day life is definitely cause for some reevaluation.
So just as carpenters and shoemakers did back in 1890, then maybe we too should consider standing up to the 8 hour work day now because this is a much different time than 1890 Britain.
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Walter Guevara is a Computer Scientist, software engineer, startup founder and currently mentors for a coding bootcamp. He has been creating software for the past 15 years.