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Column: Why we need to redefine ‘full time’ work

In 1926, the titan of U.S. industry Henry Ford single-handedly scaled back his full-time employee’s workweek from forty-eight to forty hours. In justifying his decision, he claimed “It is high time to rid ourselves of the notion that leisure for workmen is either lost time or a class privilege.”

The result was a vast improvement in worker productivity and company profits. In 1940, Congress made the five-day, 40-hour workweek the law of the land by amending the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Yet over time, the number of hours worked by American full-time employees has lengthened considerably. According to a recent Gallup poll, American full-time employees now work an average of 47 hours per week, or nearly a full extra eight-hour day.

We’re working harder and longer because we’ve come to believe that is the best way to increase our productivity and our personal wealth. The facts prove otherwise.

First, despite working longer hours, we earn less in terms of real wages—taking inflation into account–than we did 40 years ago. Even though Americans earn higher salaries than they did several decades ago, they earn less overall because the cost of living has increased faster than wages.

The outcome of this “wage stagnation” is that Americans’ median wealth is a mere $44,900 per adult, which puts the U.S. in 19th place globally, below Japan, Canada, Australia, and much of Western Europe. It has not escaped the notice of many millennial-age pundits that American “workism” is sapping the American soul and eroding our net worth.

Second, when corporations introduce shorter workdays or shorter workweeks for full-time workers, both worker productivity and corporate profits have soared.

Microsoft Japan saw a 40 percent boost in worker productivity when it introduced the 4-day workweek this year. New Zealand will-writing company Perpetual Guardian now gives its 200 or so employees an extra day off every week, while keeping all pay and employment conditions intact. The result: Workers were 20 percent more productive and much happier. Chief Executive Andrew Barnes called the experiment an “unmitigated success.”

A 2018 survey by The Workforce Institute found that 35 percent of current employees would take a 20-percent pay cut if they could work one less day a week. That is how much we need and value more free time.

While unexpected, these results are not surprising: Few people who log an eight-hour workday actually put in eight hours of continual work. The same 2018 Workforce Institute survey found that 45 percent of global workers think it should only take five hours a day to do their job.

It turns out, workforce authorities agree with them: Adam Grant, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business has spent years studying the dynamics of success and productivity in the workplace. His conclusion: Workers can be as productive and creative in six focused hours as in eight unfocused hours. For this reason, he suggests the workday should end at 3, instead of 5 p.m.

That sentiment is echoed by Cal Newport, the best-selling author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, who argues that three to four hours of continuous, undisturbed deep work each day is all it takes to see a transformational change in our productivity and our lives.

Third, offering a shorter workweek or shorter workday gives employers a recruitment advantage. A recent LinkedIn survey shows that 70 percent of employees and business owners say their biggest cause of stress is a lack of work-life balance. A Gallup survey shows that over 40 percent of employees often feel burned out, while 25 percent always feel burned out.

Finally, a shorter workweek or workday is the 21st century feminist issue: A recent survey of 60,000 female employees found that their biggest frustration was a lack of work-life balance. Hands down, women want more free time in large part because they carry a disproportionate share of the household and child-care responsibilities.

Men continue to believe that their primary responsibility is breadwinning, while their wives’ primary responsibility is caregiving, sweetened by “extra” earned income. The feminist revolution took place half a century ago, but the ultimate outcome has been to layer the burden of full-time employment on top of the household duties traditionally shouldered by women.

In order to achieve a truly equitable distribution of workplace and household duties between the sexes, the first thing that has to budge is the definition of full-time work.