The best number of hours to work each day

Mar 29, 2016 8:42:00 AM

Balancing work and life can be hard. What is the best number of hours to work each day?

Work-life balance has been a hot topic these days. The conversations are generally around the best number of hours to work each day and each week, what kinds of personal things we can address at work, and how often we should take breaks during the days.

Before we all launch into our personal saga of the way it should be, take a look at how the workday has evolved.

 The 16-hour workday

In 1890, the average blue-collar worker had to work 90-100 hours per week, or 15-16 hours 6 days per week. And imagine this starting very early in your teen years. Oof.

In early 1914, Ford Motor Company nearly doubled the wage of [male] workers and reduced the workday to 8 hours, so employees were working 48-hours per week.

On September 25, 1926, Ford Motor Company instituted the workweek we have today: 8 hours per day, 5 days per week.

The 8-hour workday
Henry Ford did this for a variety of reasons:

  • He received fewer complaints from employees. They were happy to work hard in those 8 hours each day knowing they were getting paid more and had more leisure and rest time.
  • The two-day weekend allowed for vacationing.
  • Their leisure time meant spending more money—on clothing, food, and an automobile to travel around in. That’s a true businessman right there.

So here we are. Ninety years later, with exponential evolution in technology, and we’re still working this same 8-hour workday. However, research has shown that working more hours does not necessarily equal increased productivity.

The 6-hour workday
A number of companies in Sweden are switching to a 6-hour work day. They did it for the some of the same reasons Ford made the switch: to make people happier and therefore increase productivity.

Considering Americans spend 1.5-3 hours per day on private activities, this change sort of makes sense. Think about the [original version of the] Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. It’s definitely possible we can get the same amount of work done in 6 hours as we can in 8 hours. And though there are some other reasons why Sweden may be doing this, the preliminary research says that employees are “happier, more alert, and less stressed.”

The 5-hour workday
Tower Paddle Boards, a fast-growing company in San Diego, took it one step further and reduced the workday to 5 hours.

According to an interview with Tech.Co, the company’s founder said, “The 5-hour workday not only defines the company’s brand but is also to give more time to its employees to pursue their individual passions.” Employees work from 8am-1pm, and the founder said it actually motivates employees as they have much more time to pursue their dreams and passions. One thing that is key here is that employees are encouraged to “identify unproductive behaviors” and focus on the behaviors that increase productivity.

One of the most important things he says is to measure work by output, not hours. The general theme here is, again, it’s not the number of hours worked, but rather we should focus on the work that is produced, no matter how long it does—or doesn’t—take.


The work-life blend
To recap, we’ve gone from a 16- to 5-hour workday. We’re at a pivotal point where everyone is seeking a work-life balance. But is that really what we should be pursuing? ‘Balance’ assumes there is an equal amount of time for work and for life. For many of us, this just isn’t a reality to be had, and it’s not one we necessarily demand. Instead, another option is a work-life blend, a blur between work and personal time.

As this Fast Company article states, “‘[Millennials] don’t mind accessing their work life during their personal life, but they also want to access their personal life during work.’” It’s not uncommon for the modern worker to transition from writing up a report, to answering a coworker’s message on Slack, to taking a quick call from a friend, and back to the report.

This article on creating a work-life blend has a few key takeaways to me:

  1. Work and personal life should be allies.
  2. Redefine success to include all of your roles: employee, spouse, parent, friend, colleague, manager, etc.
  3. Determine if you spend a lot or a little time at work because it’s something you passionately like or do not like. If you truly love your job, long hours are not necessarily burdensome to you, thus they don’t create problems in your work/life effectiveness.
  4. We should see ourselves as whole integrated people, not splintered and compartmentalized.

I think this is the trend we’ll see rise, more so than the 5-hour workday (as nice as that sounds). It’s more sustainable, and companies like cove, Washio, Zipcar, and other on-demand and sharing economy companies are making it possible. You choose when, where, and how you want to work. And if you want to take a big ol' break in the middle of your day, go for it.


Want to live a life where work simply fits in? Check out cove. You choose when, where, and how you work at any of our convenient locations.

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Erin Gifford

Written by Erin Gifford

Erin started with cove in January 2014 and has been enjoying the adventure ever since. Outside of her role as marketing director with cove, she loves the performing arts, memoirs, and UNC.