How many hours per week do you work? 50? 60? 80? Odds are, it’s more than 40. So whatever happened to the 40-hour work week? That’s a hot topic right now. Depending on who you talk to, it’s either long gone or it’s making a big comeback.

The 40-hour work week has been an official American institution for more than 75 years. Yet for many (perhaps we should say, most) who don’t actually punch a time clock, the 40-hour week has become a fantasy. It’s one thing to work long hours to finish a big project, but when work creep has you tethered to the office and your co-workers longer and longer hours, day in and day out, that’s a very different issue.

Bucking tradition can be a good thing

In a recent study conducted by Manpower Group, 94% of respondents said they are open to something other than the traditional 9-5 work week. But they meant flexible scheduling, not “9+5” hours per day.

Flexible scheduling – what Manpower calls NextGen Work – enables employees to balance their work with personal obligations and desires. That alleviates stress and boosts job satisfaction. Offering flexibility in the form of personalized scheduling, remote access, etc. enables companies to hire and keep the best talent.

Interestingly, when the Manpower study asked what motivates people to work, younger Millennials and Boomers expressed the same top priorities:

  1. Money
  2. Work/life balance
  3. Meaningful work

So why are we putting in ever-longer hours?

In some companies, there is a pervasive – if not necessarily stated – cultural belief that working 9-5 is for losers. High-tech startups are well-known for their unusual working environments. But they are also (in)famous for a work ethic that demands comprehensive commitment to the business cause.

Never leaving work mode has become romanticized, thanks to leaders in tech and other highly visible companies who brag about how they work 24/7 and how busy-busy-busy they are “getting things done.” To hear them, the only path to success is a moving walkway from which you dare not stray. It has progressed to the point where you aren’t considered serious about your job if you don’t work extremely long hours. You will never be – or be seen as — a high performer.

Technology itself is often blamed for facilitating the endless work week. On-the-go connectivity is tremendously convenient. But is there no OFF button? Technology is also distracting. It demands our attention. We think we have to have real-time conversations about everything. If we don’t check our email and social accounts frequently, we’ll miss out. All these interruptions are keeping us “at work” longer without getting any actual work done.

Of course, technology is not the only cause. Workers are influenced by their peers and their bosses as well as the distinct fear that they will be seen as lazy or not a team player if they resist routinely long hours.

But are we productive, or just there?

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, founders of the collaboration software company Basecamp, are in an entirely different camp when it comes to defining the work week. Their company is no startup – they’ve been around for 18 years. They believe that 8 hours a day is enough time to do great work, whereas performance suffers when people routinely put in more time. They don’t merely frown on overtime, they do not allow people to work over 40 hours per week.

Basecamp isn’t the only place where overtime is a no-go. BambooHR, another software company also has what they call an “anti-workaholic policy” that prohibits 40+ hours per week. Company co-founder Ryan Sanders says the point is to prevent burnout, which is “bad for employees, bad for their families and bad for business.”

And they check. If you run over, they want to know why. If it’s a one-off occurrence due to a special need, fine. If it starts to look like a habit, they take steps to correct the situation. Often, pressure to continue working past “quitting time” is self-imposed. But as Sanders points out, “You’re fooling yourself if you think you’ll get it all done.”

Basecamp’s Fried and Hansson agree. Their advice? Get a life. And live it. Family. Friends. Hobbies. Recreation.

Fried and Hansson also note that an 8-hour day probably involves 4 or 5 hours of actual work. Even for the most efficient among us, being in the office for XX hours doesn’t equate to XX hours of accomplishment. We take breaks, chat with co-workers, go to lunch. And then there’s that endless email checking.

Among other suggestions, they say it’s time to get rid of shared calendars, because once someone else has access to your calendar they can steal your time by scheduling it for you. You must control your own time, they say, because we all periodically need large chunks of time to ourselves (they recommend 4 hours) in order to think, to write, to make things.

Science says: give it a rest

Sleep deprivation is bad for you. That’s a proven fact. Eventually, you come to a point of diminishing returns . According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , research reveals “a pattern of deteriorating performance on psychophysiological tests as well as injuries while working long hours.”

Specifically, once you’ve been working 9 hours, you can expect to feel progressively more tired and less able to think or even pay attention to the task at hand.

This is not sustainable. Yet, despite all the factual evidence that overwork and lack of sleep are detrimental to our physical and mental health, old behaviors “stick.” It can be quite difficult to get employees to change their habits.

Changing behaviors: insights from Down Under

Business execs in Sydney, Australia, were having trouble getting employees to adopt flexible scheduling options, even though the options offered clear advantages. At the same time, local transportation officials wanted to promote commuting in non-peak times, to alleviate congestion. So they joined forces to see if they could change workers’ behavior.

First, they identified three behavioral barriers to change:

  • Company culture that subtly “discredits” those who choose a different schedule
  • Fear of being negatively judged by managers
  • Existing lifestyle obligations built around a 9-5 work schedule – child care, trips to the gym, etc.

To overcome these barriers, businesses reset the default settings in Microsoft Outlook from 9-5 to a narrower midday range of acceptable times for meetings. This made it easier for employees to choose early or late arrival/departure times without fear of missing important meetings. They also asked managers to model flexible scheduling themselves, to allay fears and encourage employees to mimic the new behavior.

But their most successful approach was a three-month contest that created teams, awarding points whenever team members made non-traditional work choices such as changing their arrival or departure time, working from home, or working part-time. Prizes for the winning team, of course.

Will these approaches work elsewhere? Maybe. They are worth a try for companies that want employees to work fewer yours.

There will always be work that needs to be done. Now the question is: how much time is the right amount of time to devote to that work? It’s a conversation which is likely to keep both employers and their employees busy for some time to come.

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