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If you work an office job, your life is likely run by eight-hour intervals set by a corporation: 9 to 5, 8 to 4, 10 to 6. Working from home, those hours tend to expand—scrolling emails at 7, sitting at a monitor in between snippets of childcare and chores, more emails before bed. These hours dictate our sleep schedules. They determine when we have free time and how often we see our family. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are slotted around time spent at work.
But while it’s true you’re at work during those eight hours, you probably aren’t sitting at your computer doing work the entire time, even if you’re in the office. You might grab a coffee with coworkers, or take a personal phone call. And probably you spend at least some of the time doing nothing but checking TikTok or browsing Zara.
That’s not only reasonable, it’s innate. For humans, concentrating on work for every minute of an eight hour day is “impossible,” says Malissa Clark, a psychologist at the University of Georgia whose research focuses on employee well-being and workaholism.
But how many hours should we actually work? What are other people doing?
In a 2016 U.K. survey, 1,989 full-time office workers reported working an average of 2 hours and 53 minutes per day. That’s just one survey. But there’s a lot of evidence that office work just isn’t as productive as we think. In 2006, Gloria Mark, a researcher at the University of California, Irvine, gathered data from phones and computers and found that the average time people spent working on a device at a time was 2 minutes and 11 seconds, shorter than some TikTok videos. And in a survey of 1,000 American office workers in 2018, 36% of millennial and Gen-Z employees estimated that they spend two hours a day distracted by their smartphones.
No matter your intention, whether you’re working from a home office or next to your coworkers, it really is hard to work consistently at work. We’re being set up to fail, and to feel bad about it. There has to be a better way.
Why do we work eight hours a day?
If we know people can’t focus for that long, why insist that workers put in at least eight hours? “The length of the working day is not based on science; it’s based on struggle,” says Sarah Jaffe, author of Work Won’t Love You Back. Eight hours is not a figure that reflects how long a human can focus, or the amount needed to keep the economy running. It’s based, says Jaffe, “on the fact that factory workers used to work 14 hours, and then they struck and fought until they got it down to 10, and then they struck and fought until they got it down to eight.”
In the 1800s the eight-hour day was radical. But why is it still being applied almost 200 years later? You know what’s changed—we have tools that allow almost every kind of production in almost every industry to be more efficient than it was. In the past I would have spent hours in a library verifying the spelling of the last names in this article. Today it took about 50 seconds.
The other problem with a 19th-century work model is that it was designed for a time when most women were homemakers. “This 40-hour workweek was designed when we still had this breadwinner model in families where one person would be the worker and one person would stay home and take care of the family role,” says Clark. If you’ve ever struggled to work 40 hours a week and meal prep and clean and run errands and care for your child, this is why. 40 hours of work is a reasonable expectation for someone who has a full-time worker at home.
How productive are we, even?
Given new technology, maintaining long work weeks should lead to amazing productivity, right? Not necessarily. “There’s diminishing returns when you get to a certain total number of hours,” says Melissa Nightingale, co-author of the upcoming Unmanageable: Leadership Lessons From an Impossible Year. “The quality of work, the more hours you’re putting in—it sort of drops off a cliff.”
Nightingale was referring to people who work extreme hours. But many of us—especially in uncertain economic times, like the pandemic—try to go above and beyond that 40-hour mark? The American ethos of working hard and getting ahead is commonly accepted. But is it common sense? “This idea of working to be the best employee, working even more than that to shine and rise above the rest—I think that is a horrible idea,” says Clark. “It’s inevitably going to lead to burnout.”
It’s also not clear if bosses can tell the difference. Researcher Erin Reid interviewed over 100 workers at a top consulting firm who were expected to work up to 80 hours per week. She found a trend: Women would often ask for time off to take care of their children and personal needs, which impacted their career growth. Men took similar time off, but instead of asking permission they would often simply do fewer hours of work, while “passing” as 80-hour-per-week-ers. Crucially, bosses didn’t know which workers were actually working 80, and which were working 50 or 60. They just preferred the workers who appeared to do 80 hours.
So what are we supposed to do at work?
Without discussing it, and maybe without even knowing it, American office workers have tacitly agreed to work maybe half or two thirds of a workday. We might sit at our desks for more than eight hours, but we’re not doing eight hours of work. That means that hours of our lives—hundreds of hours a year—are spent doing a kind of “playing pretend” just to appease our bosses.
This can’t totally be a secret—it’s the exact premise of The Office. But we don’t really talk about it, maybe because in America, working hard is one of the last truly bipartisan values. Our Puritan ancestors believed that hard work is the key to salvation. These days, Jaffe points out, since necessities like health care are provided through work instead of the government, Americans tend to believe that work represents a person’s total worth.
Seeming unproductive is seen as more sinful in America than cruelty or disregard for others. In the era of hustle culture, arguing for a standard workweek of less than 40 hours feels almost heretical. But if eight hours isn’t necessarily what bosses expect from office workers—and it’s definitely not what most people are doing—what should we be doing? We asked a time-management expert, a psychologist, a labor journalist, and an actual boss.
Grace Marshall, coach, productivity ninja, and author, most recently, of Struggle: The Surprising Truth, Beauty, and Opportunity Hidden in Life’s Sh*ttier Moments
I’m hesitant to actually prescribe a number of hours. But I would encourage people to explore—if it isn’t eight hours, what could it look like for me? What’s the actual work in need to get done? What’s the impact I need to make? What would be the optimal amount of time to work to get that done?
You might be quite surprised—if you strip away all the things that keep you bust and get to the result you’re actually employed to produce, you might find that you don’t need to work anywhere near the 40 hours.
There’s an interesting piece of research—as knowledge workers, in terms of our attention, we only get two or three hours of proactive attention a day. If you start with that, then you could build your time around those core hours and do away with the things that don’t add value. I call it riding the attention waves—you’ve got some core golden hours, and everything else fits in between. Suddenly, you think, Maybe I could work a six-hour working day? Or a four hour working day?
Malissa Clark, Ph.D., associate professor of industrial-organizational psychology at the University of Georgia
If we were smart about it and we really listened to the researchers who have worked on this and actually drew from the rest and recovery literature, I don’t see any reason why we have to be married to this 9-to-5.
I think we have to ask: How long is the stretch that we can work on a task and be completely focused on that task? And once we figure out that—say it’s a half hour or 45 minutes that we’re really good at sustaining our attention—then implement workday break activities in between these really heavy periods of focus. There’s a ton of research on the effectiveness of workday breaks—this could be as simple as checking Facebook or walking during the workday. I wish I had a perfect answer. But I think if we did this, we could be equally effective in half the time.
Sarah Jaffe, author of Work Won’t Love You Back: How Devotion to Our Jobs Keeps Us Exploited, Exhausted, and Alone
I don’t think we’re going to figure out a scientific number of hours that we should be working. It’s always going to be a product of conflicting pressures. You and your boss have fundamentally different interests—they want you to work for as long as possible and be as productive as possible. You want to not do that, because you want to have a life. I write about this in the book. This relatively recent idea that “We all work because we love work,” rather than “We all work because if we didn’t we would starve,” is used to convince us to stay longer at work.
The existence of the eight-hour day was a compromise that was hashed out over years and years of struggle. The question today is ultimately going to be satisfied not by science but by struggles between workers and their bosses.
Melissa Nightingale, cofounder of Raw Signal Group, co-author of Unmanageable: Leadership Lessons From an Impossible Year
The number of hours alone isn’t the component that I care about. You can burn someone out in 40 hours a week, you can burn somebody out in four hours a week. If the boss is really disrespectful, if the culture is really abusive, if the climate is toxic, the number of hours isn’t the factor in terms of people having the Sunday scaries or that feeling of dread.
The best answer really hinges on clarity—Does my boss have clarity on what success looks like? What is the work that we’re being asked to do here? Is the work even possible given the time constraints that we’re under? A lot of folks are really burnt out, and in part they’re burnt out because they’re committed to doing work that is not actually physically possible in the number of hours in the day.
People can work 80 hours a week, they can work 100 hours a week, it’s just that the quality of work sharply declines. It’s unsustainable. There are physical repercussions. It’s the tool people reach for when they’re underwater: “If I just sign on after the kids go to bed!” “If I just pull an all-nighter I’ll get back on top of it!” Often what ends up happening is that the work we do when we pull an all-nighter is work that has to be redone.
One of the things that I’m most excited about right now is bosses and employees having this renegotiation right now. What does it look like to be in an organization that’s set up so workers can thrive?
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
Originally Appeared on Glamour