The hardest part about managing a career and a social life amidst spending 80 percent of your time at work is the depression and angst that follows. This article is to inform readers of the origin of the 40-hour work week and examine if it is still needed in today’s society. Also, to encourage readers to step out of their subconscious, A gentle reminder that it is normal to feel overwhelmed when we are overworked. Instead of internalizing this feeling, perhaps we can inspire the working class to challenge companies to shift away from it.
The ideology that’s created the career-obsessed world we live in has taken its toll on more of us than we’d like to admit, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic and monkeypox virus. We work more and live less; that is our existing truth. The standard 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., 40-hour work week regime has been generally accepted — or at least stoically endured — by the American populace for generations.
One study of 1,500 Americans in 2021 found that more than half were feeling burned out due to the demands of their jobs, and as a result, 4.3 million Americans willingly quit their jobs in December, a phenomenon the New York Times dubbed “the great resignation.”
The reasons varied from being influenced by other coworkers leaving the company to finding better pay and benefits elsewhere. But one thing they all had in common was the universal feeling of work burnout.
Burnout, by its definition, is not a medical diagnosis, rather it’s “a manifestation of chronic unrelenting stress,” explained Dr. Lotte Dyrbye, a physician-scientist who researches burnout at the Mayo Clinic. The World Health Organization describes burnout as a workplace phenomenon characterized by feelings of exhaustion, cynicism, and diminished efficacy.
These feelings are typically emphasized in workplaces that exist to supplement chief executives and/or their corporations, which unfortunately make up the vast majority of the economy. Amid the face of inflation and the rising cost of living, working full-time seems to be the only way to stay afloat. Of course, working 40 hours a week—every week—wouldn’t be necessary if we were to assume the overwhelming majority of people earned a livable wage, but according to CNBC, 64 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck.
According to an article by Stephanie Moser, she and her assistant calculated the living wage in the current economic climate (as determined in December 2021 and reflecting compensation offered in 2022). The study gathered geographically specific data on food, childcare, healthcare, housing, transportation, and other necessities, and found that: the living wage in the United States for a family of four (two working adults and two children) is $24.16 per hour, or $100,498.60 per year, before taxes, compared to $89,605.51 or $21.54 per hour in 2020.
Keep in mind that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) latest study, the average wage for workers in the U.S. is $54,132 per year. Meaning that the minimum wage does not provide a living wage for most Americans and their families. A typical family of four (two working adults and two children) needs to work more than two full-time minimum-wage jobs (a 98-hour work week per working adult) to earn a living wage, while single-parent families need to work twice as hard.
In light of these statistics, one might ask themselves a multitude of probing questions such as where this 40-hour work week originated, why are college-educated citizens still making minimum wage, and why do we, as a society, continue to subject ourselves to this year after year?
Well, it started with someone you may have heard of—a car manufacturer by the name of Henry Ford. In 1926, Ford tested out his new “40-hour work week” and the productivity results were seemingly so positive, he spread the new schedule to his other factories, and other companies followed suit.
Labor is the human element which makes the fruitful seasons of the Earth useful to men.Henry Ford
Life is totally different now from the days back when the economy was booming in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Working 12 or even 16-hour days, six or seven days a week, was normal in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These workers often carried out their tasks in unsafe conditions and had no real legal protections or even leverage to demand better wages or safer working conditions.
Considering this, an eight hour work week is definitely an undeniable improvement, but why, over a century later, with the emergence of smartphones, satellites, and high-tech equipment, are we still working like people who wore frock coats and bowler hats?
Single-mindedly focusing on your future is a psyche we all share as human beings, and, given the society we live in, there’s nothing inherently erroneous with placing your career as the focal point of your life to survive. However, there is something wrong with equating life to work when there are so many supplementary components that contribute to our experience on Earth.
According to “Why Do We Still Work 40 Hours a Week?” an interesting article published on slowgrowth.com, work overload is linked to a slew of health problems, including unhealthy weight gain in males and increased drug misuse. One study published in the National Library of Medicine even found those who worked 12-hour shifts were more likely to abuse substances like alcohol, drugs and cigarettes than employees who worked eight hours.
It only makes sense that the reasoning behind this abuse would have some correlation to escapism. They feel so burnt out from working eight hours a day, five days a week, every week, that they’re seeking to numb their senses in order to not think or stress and just feel something, even for a moment.
These people over indulge in vices that allow them to float off into a seemingly peaceful, quiet, or fun abyss during the weekend to forget about the workload that’s bound to follow Monday through Friday.
Simple tasks, once easily achievable, now take several cups of caffeine and an unhealthy level of procrastination to even muster the brainpower to do. This leads to higher cases of work and stress-induced anxiety as well as seasonal depression.
The bottom line? There’s only so much we have control over given the circumstances. We work to live, not the other way around. It’s imperative to find and maintain your peace of mind, and nothing, not a job, nor an overly demanding company, can outrank you in preserving your mental health.
It’s okay to slow down every now and then when the workload becomes too heavy of a burden for our shoulders to carry. After all, we’re only human beings. As such, we are social and innovative creatures, not robots or machines designed to carry out tasks and projects for the majority of our lives.
Invest in yourself and your life by taking advantage of creativity when it strikes. Lean into your hobbies and the things that bring you joy more often. Set time aside to entertain all of your passions and spend more time with the people you love.
The future is uncertain and surviving doesn’t mean you’re alive.
When you look back on your adult life 30 or 40 years from now, make sure you’ve made memories that will be treasured forever, not remember thoughts revolving around working behind a desk.
Following COVID, the use of remote work has grown internationally, and one can only hope that more companies will embrace the possibility that there are other, more efficient, ways to get work done and the benefits of working shorter hours.
We appear to be heading in the right direction. Hopefully, it won’t take another century for us to abolish the 40-hour work week for good.
Edited by: Abbigail Earl and James Sutton