Is The 40 Hour Work Week A Thing Of The Past?

America is somewhat (in)famous for its “work hard, play hard’ motto,1 whereas Europeans typically work less and relax more.2 As America’s health rapidly declines, many Americans are starting to wake up and realize all those extra hours aren’t really worth it.3,4, 5 One recent example of this is a Portland-based company Treehouse, who have started a 32 hour work week trend for their employees without slashing their benefits.6 Interestingly, they have found that employees are more productive on this schedule.7 We have to ask: is this feasible for everyone?

Then there is the story of Ultra Romance – a 35 year old man who only works six months out of the year, spending the other six months riding his bicycle around the world, and living off of a mere $10.00 per day.8 While certainly not a mainstream idea, part of me thinks that he just might be on to something. He claims modern life is just too stressful, and often I’m inclined to agree with him. Scientific literature supports his claims, as well.9,10,11 Though there are other parts of his story that are even more fringe-like (he’s never owned a car, and he only got a bank account to buy and sell bicycle parts on eBay), at heart he may be more in tune with our Paleo ancestors, than we are.

But believe it or not, capitalism used to be even more demanding on the human psyche, with a 48 hour work week being a thing of the not-too-distant past.12 That clearly seems like too much to expect of human beings. It cannot be good for us to work that much…right? Correct.13 To put it simply, all that constant work is not great for our brain or body.14,15,16 And as life outside of the workplace becomes increasingly demanding it is a healthy question to ask: “how much is enough?” One alarming trend that has occurred only over the last 40-50 years is a completely diminished sleep quantity, across the board, for all genders and age groups.17 Not getting enough sleep can have long term negative consequences, on a variety of biomarkers of wellbeing.18,19

Interestingly, before capitalism, most people did not work very long hours at all.20 Capitalism may have raised income levels, but precious time (the one thing you can never get back) was lost. Was this a good trade? As we reach the apex of technology and with the potential for nearly everything to be automated, we must reexamine our lifestyles.21

If you don’t believe me, believe the data. Never before have we seen such a widespread obesity pandemic.22 Never before has healthcare and diabetes been costing us so much.23 Happiness indexes are highest in the Nordic countries – countries which have vastly different work and leisure habits than we do.24

Hopefully I’ve given you some food for thought. We are undoubtedly in tough times. There is vast economic disparity, great economic instability, rapid advancements in technology, and hyper-stimulation of our senses. But our basic biology has not changed. We are still humans who require relaxation, 8-9 hours of sleep, high quality food, and smart amounts of physical activity. Our Paleo ancestors may have been right all along – and they certainly did not work a 40 hour week.



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[20] Schor, Juliet. The overworked American : the unexpected decline of leisure. New York, N.Y: Basic Books, 1991.

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[23] Economic costs of diabetes in the U.S. in 2012. Diabetes Care. 2013;36(4):1033-46.

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