Experts weigh in on push for a shorter US workweek

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By Michigan State University/MSUToday

Newswise — EAST LANSING, Mich. – For decades, the 40-hour workweek has been the standard practice for many workers in the United States. Millions of Americans arrive at work by 8 a.m. and continue until 5 p.m., if not later into the evening. In March, a bill was introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to reduce the standard workweek from 40 hours per week to 32 hours per week. While the bill is only in the introduction phase and far from being passed, it nevertheless has sparked conversation.

Angela Hall is an associate professor in Michigan State University’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations, and Chu-Hsiang “Daisy” Chang is a professor of organizational psychology in the Department of Psychology in the College of Social Science. Together, they answer questions about the potential effects of a reduced workweek, including labor history and potential implications.

What should we know about the history of the 40-hour workweek in the U.S. when considering this proposed bill?

According to Hall, in the 19th century, a six-day, 10-hour each day workweek was the norm.

In the 1920s, Henry Ford started eight-hour workdays in his factories, so that they could run in shifts and operate 24 hours per day. Later, the U.S. government made eight-hour days the norm during the Great Depression, as shorter shifts would mean stretching out jobs among more people. The last time workweeks were modified was upward of a century ago when the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, or FLSA, reduced overtime from 44 to 40 hours. This proposed bill would reduce the workweek from 40 to 32 hours without a reduction in pay. This would have the greatest impact on hourly workers who are entitled to overtime by the FLSA, as their overtime would kick in after working 32 hours in a workweek.

Why has the 40-hour workweek existed for so long?

Hall answered with: Part of it has to do with the fact that Congress normalized the 40-hour week with the Fair Labor Standards Act. Also, our society in the U.S. has traditionally promoted and normalized individual achievement and success, while not equally promoting values such as work-life balance and mental health. Baby boomer/postwar values in the U.S. really promoted personal and financial success.

However, with millennials, who now are the biggest age demographic in the workforce, we’re beginning to see a change. These younger workers value work-life balance. Moreover, even though they have worked hard, millennials have not seen the same financial successes as the previous generations. Thus, you may see greater calls, particularly in the post-COVID-19 U.S. for shorter workweeks.

Other countries, such as Iceland, have introduced or experimented with reducing the workweek. When Iceland reduced the workweek from 40 hours to 32, it saw no reduction in worker productivity.

What benefits could come from reducing workweek hours?

The benefits of a shorter workweek would ostensibly be that workers who receive overtime would have the option of working less for the same pay or working the same hours for more pay. It also may normalize a 32-hour workweek for salaried workers who are not entitled to overtime. Having a shorter workweek could also cut down on the cost associated with commuting and childcare, Hall noted.

According to Chang, the number of hours worked is often used as an indicator for workload. “So, this reduction can translate into reduced workload, which is a major stressor for workers. This can potentially mean that workers can use the extra time to help achieve better work-life balance, such as using the time for exercising, preparing healthier and more nutritious meals, spending more time with family and friends, and engaging in other learning activities that can develop their skills. This can lead to the downstream benefit of a healthier workplace and a healthier society in general — where people are, overall, less stressed and able to use the time for enhancing their personal health and well-being.

Are there any risks or concerns regarding reducing workweek hours?

There are some risks and concerns related to this reduction, Chang said. First, for salaried workers, it may be difficult for the organization to change the performance expectations for these employees. In this case, even if the work hours are reduced, employees may still work the same number of hours (if not more) to get their assigned tasks done. As such, the reduction in work hours will not necessarily translate into reduced workload — in fact, workers may be pressured to get more done within the shorter amount of time. The same thing is even more likely to happen for waged workers. Again, organizations may think that they are ‘full-time’ workers if they work only 32 hours instead of 40 hours per week now and will still demand the same level of performance/output from them since their status is still ‘full-time.’ Businesses also could choose to pass that cost on to their customers and clients.

Relatedly, there are a lot of employment-related benefits that are only available for ‘full-time’ workers, such as health insurance, retirement benefits, etc. For this change to not affect workers negatively, it will need to be accompanied by all the changes of how companies define who is eligible for different types of benefits. This can have serious implications and escalate very quickly and may even have unintended consequences if the federal and state-level legislations do not agree with each other. Unfortunately, these uncertainties can lead to additional stress for workers if the policy is not implemented in a well-planned manner. It is also possible that this policy may affect working caregivers negatively because if teachers and schools change hours, these new hours may not align with parents’ work schedules.

How might companies react to increased calls for reducing work hours?

I think how companies respond to the calls will really depend on a lot of factors, Chang said. The local labor market, the relationships between employers and workers or worker representatives (e.g., unions), the types of jobs that will be affected, technological advancement and the potential to automate part of the work process, etc. can all influence how companies react to these calls.

I do think that it is important to keep in mind that when we think about the implications of a policy like this, or how companies will react to the calls for reducing work hours, we often think about big companies that employ lots of people — in other words, Fortune 100 or 500 companies. But what we forget is that the majority of us work for smaller-to-midsize organizations that operate locally and may not be able to tolerate as much financial strain as larger companies.

We really do need to think about how we can foster better employer-employee relationships and to support both sides, especially for smaller locally owned businesses. I think this will lead to a more productive conversation in terms of enhancing employee productivity, health and well-being without jeopardizing the positive aspects about their jobs, such as income, benefits, meaningfulness, sense of accomplishment, as well as meaningful relationships they cultivate through work.

What other efforts are in play to modify work times?

I think any major change will need to be made in a careful manner, and I do not know if it makes sense to make the switch to, for example, the four 10-hour workday, for everyone, Chang said.

This may make perfect sense for some jobs in some organizations, but it does not make sense for others. It is best to think about strategies that will encourage organizations to think about flexibility in a broader sense. It is not about a single issue of how many hours individuals should work, but about how to best utilize human capital to maximize productivity while making sure that the design fits workers’ needs. If employees prefer a four-day workday with a 10-hour shift and their jobs permit such a schedule, then it makes sense to create that option for workers. For other workers who have specific responsibilities or demands they must fulfill, having four 10-hour workdays may not be the best option. Instead, they may want to have location flexibility and work remotely on some days.

Companies really need to think about what their core operations are, how to best design the workflow to support the core functions and support workers perform these core functions. It is important employees are involved in the decision-making process and understand the changes.

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