Shorter working days: the secret to a healthier, more productive life?

Shorter working days: the secret to a healthier, more productive life?

by Clément Fournier Clément Fournier
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What if we got out of work a little earlier? What if our work schedules were shorter on a daily basis? It is perhaps the secret to a healthier, more productive life, and more efficient companies.

Today, the professional world is reinventing its organizational principles. Increasingly, companies and employees are finding that businesses’ traditional organizational methods are not functioning well: burn-outs multiply, stress-related diseases at work increase, boredom (and the famous bore-out) are part of everyday life in many companies… Companies are therefore increasingly thinking about new ways of functioning, allowing them to adapt to a more flexible, increasingly digital, and open social and economic context.

Thus, companies and employees are experimenting teleworking, walking to work, napping at work… They are also trying new ways of organizing working time, such as increased leave time, the idea of ​​taking regular breaks during the day…

But among the latest trends, there is one that is beginning to emerge among the most productive companies in the world: the reduction of the daily volume of work. And if working shorter days made it possible to be, at the same time, better in life, better in work, and to boost the productivity of companies?

shorter working daysShorter working day : why do we work 8 hours a day?

The 8-hour day became the traditional pattern for workers during the 20th century. We start the day at 9 am, finish it between 5 and 7 pm (depending on the meal break time), and carry out about 8 hours of daily work. But why eight hours? This idea, which seems so obvious to us today, is inherited from a simple slogan that is almost 200 years old.

It was the beginning of the industrial revolution, and companies were flourishing thanks, in particular, to the labor power of their employees. The companies were then pushing these employees to work as much as possible: up to 12 or even 15 hours a day. An entrepreneur and social thinker, Robert Owen, then had the intuition that it would be more productive for a company to have happier and healthier employees rather than exhausted employees during unsustainable days. He launched a social program to improve the quality of life of his employees, reduce working hours, stopping child labor. In 1817, he launched a slogan “Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest”, a program supposed to symbolize the balance of a working day. This slogan even became that of the 1st Workers’ International.

200 years later, in 2016, companies are still operating on this principle, a principle developed 200 years ago to relieve precarious workers from exploitation. And of course, today, more and more entrepreneurs and employees are wondering whether a principle as archaic is today always adapted to our world of work, radically different from that of 1817. This is particularly the case in Sweden, which has launched a six-hour workday program. And science seems to prove them right!

Working 8 hours a dayShorter working days: a biological necessity

The idea of ​​working 8 consecutive hours in the day is in complete contradiction with the way our body works. Our organism is unable to be productive for 8 consecutive hours, notably because of what is called the “circadian rhythm”, that is to say our daily biological cycles. How our body reacts during the day depends on many factors: our hormones, our diet, our exposure to daylight… And what scientists studying these issues have found is that we have a very specific biological rhythm. Thus, we are productive at certain times of the day intellectually and physically. And at other times, we are not productive at all.

For example, we know that the human body has two productivity peaks in the day. The first takes place mid-late morning: after waking, the brain activates gradually, and becomes very active before noon (up to 1 p.m. on average). There follows a period when the brain is not very productive (until 3-4 p.m.). Then the body reactivates gradually and reaches a maximum of productivity (on the physical plane) until 5-6 p.m.. In summary: the body is made to think in the morning, to do tasks requiring little concentration in the early afternoon, and physical tasks in late afternoon, early evening. Some suggest that the body also has a peak of creativity in the evening around 9 p.m.. Of course, these rhythms are not always accurate, they may depend on individuals, their sleeping hours, or their eating rhythm. But it is generally the normal functioning mode for a human body.

When working from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in an office, with a break from 12 to 1 p.m., for example, we are in complete contradiction to our natural rhythm. First, we are on meal break exactly when our brain is most active. Then we spend almost a third of the day (from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.) working when our body is the least productive… Finally, it is only in the morning (where we are more productive overall) that we are in line with our pace.

And above all, more and more studies tend to prove that an individual can focus only their attention on intellectual work for a limited time! Some studies say 52 consecutive minutes, others say 1h30… But overall, the results show that in a day, we are only really intellectually productive for about 6 hours, provided we take good breaks.

Less working hours for more productive days : what is the ideal working time?

shorter working days schedule productivity

Using these theoretical findings, many companies and employees try it in practice: we know, for example, that employees who work 8 hours or more during the day are on average less productive than those who work less. They are less efficient in cognitive tests, less efficient in intellectual tests, in particular because of the cerebral fatigue that accumulates. Being in the office for more than 8 hours a day is associated with poorer overall health, with a 40% higher risk of developing heart disease or stress related diseases. Another study conducted by the Laboratory on Health and Safety in the UK shows that long hours of work induce fatigue, stress, headaches, cardiovascular disorders (note, “long hours” includes travel time!) . Some research goes so far as to say that working more than 8 hours a day sitting at an office is as bad for health as smoking tobacco.

It can be seen in countries with the highest average working hours, they also have the lowest productivity. And those where work days are the shortest are the most productive. And it may be a coincidence, but these countries also have the highest quality of working life, and where the quality of life is the best. And the same is true for companies: those that impose daily working hours are also the least productive.

In the end, scientists generally agree that the ideal daily working time is around 6 hours, and more concentrated in the morning. This is what is being practiced in Sweden, and they are currently experiencing significant success. Thus, workers take advantage of the hours when they are most productive, and concentrate in the afternoon other daily activities (including social, sporting and cultural). This freedom allows employees to better manage their fatigue, their work-life balance (fundamental for productivity), and also allows them to rediscover everyday life outside of work. Experts in psychology have shown that this way of organizing working time (short working days punctuated by short periods of vacation) is the one that makes the employees happiest: more than, for example, working longer and taking a longer vacation. It is therefore better to work less daily and take small frequent holidays, especially since long holidays seem to have a detrimental effect on mood and productivity!

In short, what science says today is that our whole way of organizing working time is unsuited to our physiology. Rather than working long hours each day,working shorter hours means more intense and concentrated productivity. Rather than spending our whole day at the office, we should fragment our working time, and concentrate it more in the morning. Rather than working hard all year long in the hope of taking a long vacation in August to have fun at the pool or on the beach, it is better to take the time to live daily and take shorter holidays more frequently throughout the year.


So if you want to be more productive, happier and healthier, it’s time to adopt a different lifestyle. And to spend less days at work!


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