The Eight-Hour Workday Is a Terrible Idea


A growing body of academic literature has emerged in the last few years arguing the eight-hour work day simply doesn’t work.

Studies into the eight-hour work day argue that how long you work doesn’t have anything to do with how efficient and productive you are.

Eight-hour work-day: where did this come from?

Historically, eight hours of work came about following a campaign by social reformer Robert Owen in 1810. At the time, factories were open 24 hours, and workers would often find themselves working 10-15 hour shifts.

Robert Owen came up with a slogan: ‘Eight Hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest’, and in 1926 - almost a century later - the Ford Motor company became one of the first in America to implement an eight hour work day for its staff, along with doubling workers’ pay.

More than a century later, many academics believe working eight hours a day is an outdated concept.

Writing for the Huffington Post, Tony Schwartz cites sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman, who discovered something called ‘basic rest-activity cycle’- our bodies operate on 90-minute period at night, going between deep and light sleep.

He also observed this for humans during the day: We move from high alertness to lower alertness in 90-minute increments, called the ‘ultradian rhythm’. Basically, in order to maintain productivity, we have to take many breaks throughout the day.  

Dr Travis Bradberry, author and President at TalentSmart, takes it one step further, by suggesting an alternative. Writing on Linkedin, he said:

"The ideal work-to-break ratio was 52 minutes of work, followed by 17 minutes of rest. People who maintained this schedule had a unique level of focus in their work. "

He isn’t the only one to suggest alternatives.

Sweden experimented with six-hour work days amongst nurses at a care home in Gothenburg. Initial reports confirmed that nurses were happier, had more energy and were more productive. When they returned to an eight-hour work day, the results were stark: one nurse told BBC:

"I feel that I am more tired than I was before [when on a six-hour work day]."

Journalist Owen Jones has suggested a four-day work week, and Guardian writer Oliver Burkeman supports a four-hour working day.

And while there hasn’t yet been a consensus yet about how much we should be working, one thing’s for sure: it’s not eight hours a day.