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What is the ideal work-week length?

In 1900, the Ford Motor Company commissioned a series of tests to determine how long a workweek should be to optimize productivity. Ford discovered the “sweet spot” was forty hours per week.

Sara Robinson, in her article Bring Back the 40-hour work week, relays the following story:

“In 1914, after 12 years of internal study, Henry Ford took the radical step of doubling his workers’ pay, and cutting shifts in Ford plants from nine hours to eight. The National Association of Manufacturers criticized him bitterly for this—though many of his competitors climbed on board in the next few years when they saw how Ford’s business boomed as a result.

Robinson continues: “In 1937, the forty-hour week was enshrined nationwide as part of the New Deal. By that point, there were a solid five decades of industrial research that proved, beyond a doubt, that if you wanted to keep your workers bright, healthy, productive, safe, and efficient over a sustained stretch of time, you kept them to no more than forty hours a week and eight hours a day.”

There was one exception to this rule. Research by the Business Roundtable in the 1980s discovered that a company could get short-term gains by going to sixty-to-seventy-hour weeks very briefly—for example, pushing extra hard for a few weeks to meet a critical production deadline. However, there were three key warnings attached to this exception:

Increased hours yield diminishing returns

Increasing a team’s hours by fifty percent (from forty to sixty hours) does not result in fifty percent more productivity. Most leaders today assume the extra hours will produce an equally matched extra output, but usually this formula fails. The vast majority of workers’ productivity falls off a cliff after forty-five hours in a work week.

Working an extra 20 hours is effective only in short bursts

If you put in 50-60 hours every week, your production declines every successive week because of increasing levels of exhaustion. When people get tired, they make stupid mistakes that take longer to fix. Focus becomes elusive, and consequently production can slow to crawl.  The Business Roundtable study revealed that after just eight 60-hour weeks, the fall-off in productivity was so dramatic that the average team would have been equally productive if they’d just stuck to a 40-hour week all along. Food for thought, huh?

Long-term increased hours reduce long-term productivity

Once the short burst of multiple extra-hour weeks is over—and your team goes back to forty hours—it can take several weeks for them to return to their normal output. So, for a while, you’ll get significantly less than a full forty out of them in terms of production.

Now . . . I’m a realist. I understand your work week likely doesn’t fit neatly into forty hours. And I’m not suggesting that any work done after forty hours in a week is worthless, or that you are doing something inherently evil when you work 40+. So while there is no “ideal” work-week length, be aware of the inevitable productivity decline after you reach the Big Four Zero. You’re not getting the same bang for your buck. And neither is your team.

I’m rooting and praying for you and your leadership!

P.S. – If you want to learn in more detail how to structure your life to achieve healthy rhythms so you can do the work you love longer and more productively, my book Unshakable You: Five Choices of Emotionally Healthy People will give you practical (and doable) steps to build an emotional foundation that can help you bear the weight of your work.

You can pick up a copy here

John Opalewski

Author John Opalewski

John Opalewski is a graduate of Oral Roberts University. He served as a pastor for fifteen years. He has worked in the business world for nearly two decades, serving in multiple leadership roles. John's experience as a leader in both the church and business arenas has made him a sought-after international speaker, coach and mentor.

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