Success and the 40 Hour Work Week

I’m a true believer in the 40 hour work week. It’s something I’m very vocal about in private conversation but never discussed publicly. 40 hours is not an arbitrary amount that can be easily dismissed. This 8 hour day, 5 day week schedule emerged from the industrial revolution as the key to maximizing worker output.

In her thorough and concise essay, “Why We Have to Go Back to a 40-Hour Work Week to Keep Our Sanity”, AlterNet’s Sara Robinson Explains the evolution of the 40 hour work week and why it is so relevant today. Robinson illustrates how lessons learned from the industrial work force are more significant with information workers:

Research shows that knowledge workers actually have fewer good hours in a day than manual laborers do — on average, about six hours, as opposed to eight … The other thing about knowledge workers is that they’re exquisitely sensitive to even minor sleep loss. Research by the US military has shown that losing just one hour of sleep per night for a week will cause a level of cognitive degradation equivalent to a .10 blood alcohol level. Worse: most people who’ve fallen into this state typically have no idea of just how impaired they are. It’s only when you look at the dramatically lower quality of their output that it shows up.

I’ve worked in many types of office environments, ranging from tightly managed to chaotic. My own experience has taught me, as Robinson explains, the correlation between effective management and overtime hours. Rarely is a programmer able to work optimally beyond a 10 hour stretch. I’ve personally witnessed teams reach the “negative-progress” mode Robinson describes where “they’re so mentally exhausted that they’re making more errors than they can fix”.

I highly recommend this essay to not only managers and workers, but to customers as well. It’s worth inquiring about the average overtime a team works. Many will wear their hours like a badge of honor. However, an overworked team only leads to a poor quality product. Successful managers account for the 40 hour week and set expectations accordingly. Their results speak for itself as well as the success of their business.

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One Response to Success and the 40 Hour Work Week

  1. Mike Wilcox says:

    I’ve rarely allowed myself to be a slave to over-working. I graduated college a little later in life so maybe that helped, but game companies were not attractive to me because they seemed so proud of their 70 hour work weeks.

    I tend to find places that work 40 hours and I’m at one now so I’m grateful for that. But I have friends who work way too many hours. I try to convince them it’s not a good idea, but they tend to say they just have to do it. A friend is in accounting and if he doesn’t work 90 hours, they’ll find someone who will. I really don’t know how he does it and really question how productive he really is.

    My last job I actually did voluntarily work quite a few hours to help advance my career. I think that was successful for about a year, and I really didn’t burn out, but I was aware that my non-work life was suffering and I couldn’t keep it up.

    I do think experience has a lot to do with it – in programming anyway. Younger guys are doing more research and just trying to figure things out which takes more time. And heck, they could just be wasting time because they don’t completely know what to do yet. Advanced guys are a little more heads down and efficient (or, 10x’ers). So while I’m a big advocate of 40 hours, I see a little leeway within reason.

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