Is the 40-Hour Workweek Back?

May 11th, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

Is leaving early a luxury reserved for senior management?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

When I worked at Lehman Brothers in the mid-1990s, I had never heard the term “work-life balance,” but if I had, I’m sure it would have been roundly scoffed at by my colleagues, most of whom took their work-hard-play-hard philosophy to extremes. In fact, I wouldn’t hear the term until nearly a decade later – and even then, it was referred to with a wink and a nod, as if ambitious people would never actually fall for such a frivolous concept.

Fast-forward to now, and serious executives are not only promoting the concept, but putting it into practice. In a recent interview with Inc., Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said she leaves the office every day at 5:30, and has since she had kids. “I did that when I was at Google, I did that here, and I would say it's not until the last year, two years, that I'm brave enough to talk about it publicly,” she says. “Now I certainly wouldn't lie, but I wasn't running around giving speeches on it.”

In fact, in a separate Inc. article addressing all the Sheryl Sandberg-related feedback from the first story, Geoffrey James says it’s “insane” that she felt she had to stay “in the closet” so long, since studies have long shown that working more than 40 hours per week actually decreases productivity. “In the early 1900s, Ford Motor ran dozens of tests to discover the optimum work hours for worker productivity,” he writes. “They discovered that the "sweet spot" is 40 hours a week–and that, while adding another 20 hours provides a minor increase in productivity, that increase only lasts for three to four weeks, and then turns negative.” 

The idea has renewed some efforts to cap the workweek at 40 hours. Michael Janati of The Washington Times says “Americans are literally working themselves to death.” Historically, there is a precedent for a lighter workweek than most Americans currently maintain. In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Fair Labor Standards Act as part of the New Deal, establishing the five-day, 40-hour maximum workweek, Jenati reminds. But it has slowly become extinct, and “We have become hostage to our jobs, largely due to employment laws that have made work-life balance unattainable.” 

Still, while high-powered execs like Sandberg now feel they can speak up about maintaining a work-life balance, says Jezebel blogger Cassie Murdoch, it’s doubtful that people in junior positions can take a stand anytime soon. “I wonder if many of the junior level women of Facebook would feel quite so comfortable announcing they’re heading home at 5:30 on the dot,” she says. “And the reality is, for many women – and men, for that matter – who work in competitive environments, this just simply isn’t an option.” 

What’s your stance on lightening American’s office “face time” hours? Should we make a stand, or is a 40-hour workweek simply the territory of senior level management who don’t need to compete?