Labor Day Reflection: Why We Work 8 Hours A Day

by | September 1, 2014

8 to 4. 9 to 5. 10 to 6. When describing our work schedule we often use these 8-hour blocks. Simple math tells us that 40-hour work week divided by 5 working days equals 8 hours a day. Easy, huh?

But where did we land at a 5-day working week? Why 8 hours a day? And does it still make sense still for today’s professional culture?

Rise of the 8-hour workday

Way back in the early 1800s people were working anywhere from 10 to 16 hours a day, 6 days a week doing backbreaking, physical labor in unsafe, mostly unregulated factories. Children were often susceptible to poor these conditions as every member of the family was needed to contribute financially in some way.

These conditions led to an early movement of workers demanding a 8-hour workday spearheaded by social reformist Robert Owen. It was met with some international success: England granted women & children 10-hour workdays in 1847 with France following with a regulated 12-hour workday following its February Revolution in 1848. But for the most part workers remained overworked and poorly paid.

An economic argument for the 8-hour workday

Karl Marx had an economical view on why employees working conditions should be improved. The conditions workers were subjected to were deadly, littered with occupational hazards. Marx looked at it like this: if you keep workers in these deadly conditions you not only physically kill off the workforce but ruin morale of the other workers. He saw this as leading to the ‘premature exhaustion and death’ of the workforce.

Despite the logic in this argument companies were reluctant to voluntarily implement better conditions. Decades later Ford did just that, doubling pay and reducing working hours to 8 per day. It saw a significant increase in productivity and a doubling of profit margin in 2 years. You bet other companies quickly followed suit.

Do we still need 8-hours?

It’s been some 77 years since federal regulations set the workweek to 40-hours as part of the New Deal. In that time the workplace has completely transformed. Factories have become increasingly automated, moving economic output from factories to offices. The rise in digital means we’re no longer have physical boundaries. We’ve increased productivity and efficiency of our most profitable sectors but still have the mental attachment to 8-hour workdays.

Now, most of us don’t actually work only 8-hours a day. We’ve done our shares of 10, 12, heck even 14-hour days. We’ve worked nights after dinner and weekends when we should be relaxing. On the flip-side, we’ve also taken breaks in the middle of the day for doctor’s appointments, running errands, family obligations, and ‘just because.’ These privileges were not available to typical worker 100 years ago – they’re value was measured solely on economic output, something that has become blurred in office-jobs.

The personalized workday

The rise of remote and flexible working conditions revolutionized how we work. Instead of being told your peak productivity needs to be between 9 and 5, these workers have the opportunity to listen to their bodies and maximize their productivity around times when they’re truly most productive. Morning risers can start work at 6am and finish at 2pm. Those who sleep later can get to the office at noon and stay until 8pm. Working virtually allows even more personalization of work schedules. Someone may be ‘on’ all day, from 8 – 8 but between completing tasks at work they are able to get personal errands done. This creates a work-life integration never before seen. It’s no longer “8 hours of work, 8 hours of rest, 8 hours of recreation” but instead becomes medley of some work followed by some rest followed by some recreation.

As we further understand productivity we begin to discredit the ‘one-size fits all’ approach. It just doesn’t work. This Labor Day think about when you’re most productive and pay homage to those who died fighting for the 8-hour workday by moving your schedule towards a personalized workday.