Why the 8-hour workday is an outdated, counterproductive lie

From Sunday Morning, 8:10 am on 9 August 2020

How many hours in a typical eight-hour workday do you actually work? For most people, it's not even close to eight.

And are we even designed to work eight hours a day? Mexico City-based science journalist Lizzie Wade thinks not.

Exhausted tired businessman working on laptop at office, massaging temporal area, holding glasses, feeling fatigue discomfort, eye strain after long wearing spectacles, eyesight problem,

Photo: 123rf

In her article The 8-Hour Workday is a Counterproductive Lie, Wade argues that it's impossible to actually work eight hours a day in the jobs many of us have.

She knows it’s a lie in her own work because she uses software to track her productive time.

“I track my time at my computer, I’m a freelance writer, and I never work 8 hours and I find it almost impossible to do so and maintain any level of sanity.”

The question should be 'Am I getting my work done?', not 'Have I put in 8 hours?' Wade tells Jim Mora.

The German consultancy group Rheingans Digital Enabler has put the theory into practice, she says.

“They instituted a much shorter workday - it’s 8am to 1pm - and they have really strict blocks on social media.

“Meetings are really short and frequently less than 15 minutes and ideally you wouldn’t ever have a meeting and the employees are required to check email only twice a day.

“And this company found that if everybody is actually 100 percent focussed and working that’s enough to get the work done if you remove all of that extra padding of the Facebook check and the chat in the hall.”

Our notion of the eight-hour day dates back to the industrial age, Wade says.

At that time, trailblazers like Henry Ford revolutionised the working day.

“It was a revolutionary idea in its time in the 19th century, early 20th century. [The norm was] to have 10-year-old children working in factories for 14 hours a day, 7 days a week.

“The eight-hour workday on five days is amazing. That was a real revolution in how people worked, how bosses think about work, how employees think about work and we all re-calibrated around that and for a lot of us we’ve moved into this new way of working.”

Now, with work patterns disrupted by Covid-19, it’s time for a pause, she says.

“Is the way that we’ve been doing this based on old systems, is this still the best way?

“Maybe now is the best time we’ve had in recent memory to examine our old habits and to think of something new and more manageable and more livable.”

Those of us engaged in what American academic Cal Newport calls “deep work” - creative tasks such as writing, designing and coding - need to maintain strong focus, Wade says.

“If I can focus on a piece of writing for 2 hours I get so much more done and it’s so much better.

“Deep work requires an intense level of focus, but you can’t maintain it for longer than three or four hours a day.”

We now have the tools and technology to transform the way we work, Wade says.

“Instead we’re using those tools to torture ourselves trying to fit into these old models.

“There’s so much more room for flexibility and creativity in how we approach our work today and I think would be a shame to not take advantage of that.”

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