How much work is really good for us? Overworking much takes a major toll on mental health, but being unemployed could as well. A new study in Social Science and Medicine researched the perfect middle ground. They discovered that to reap the psychological benefits of work; people need eight hours per week in total. That’s a fraction of the 8.5 hours most Americans work daily. However, after eight hours a week, the benefits and well-being lulls.
Almost everyone has experienced burnout and negative mental health effects from overworking. As Daiga Kamerade, first author and a sociologist at the University of Salford in England, explains, “It is like taking Vitamin C — we all need a certain dose, but taking it more than necessary does not bring any additional health benefits, and taking overly large amounts can actually have a harmful effect.” 
Study Says to Work 8 Hours Per Week
The study analyzed data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study that contains reports from over 80,000 people. The researchers examined how shifts in work hours affected people’s mental health, searching for that peak of improvement. For most people analyzed, their wellbeing improved when they worked one to eight hours. This was considerably less than the two to three days the authors anticipated. 
As technology advances and machines take over human jobs, this could initiate a redistribution of working hours, according to the authors. People could still have the benefits of employment with a reduced workweek.
While the maximum amount of work possible has already been tried and tested, the minimum amount hasn’t been explored yet, especially with the purpose of having good mental health. With today’s focus on productivity and hustling, there’s a major gap in this discussion. How much work is really good for us?
Research has found that in one eight-hour workday, typically people are only productive for two hours and 53 minutes. That’s right, despite the long day at the office, people spend time doing other unproductive things. According to a study with almost 2,000 full-time office employees, the most popular ones are: 
- Reading news websites: 1 hour, 5 minutes
- Checking social media: 44 minutes
- Discussing non-work-related things with co-workers: 40 minutes
- Searching for new jobs: 26 minutes
- Taking smoke breaks: 23 minutes
- Making calls to partners or friends: 18 minutes
- Making hot drinks: 17 minutes
- Texting or instant messaging: 14 minutes
- Eating snacks: 8 minutes
- Making food in office: 7 minutes
Imagine how much more productive people could be with shorter workdays. People could feel more rested, focused, and ready to work. It’s no wonder why in Belgium, people work about 7.7 hours per day; in Norway, they work about 7.5 hours a day. 
The Future Work Week
However, this study’s findings are not entirely practical. For people with a set income who could choose their own hours, this research could greatly help them. But for many jobs, like ones paid by the hour, it’s not practical. In order to make 8-hour workweeks, major policy changes are needed, such as universal income or wealth distribution to avoid the “increase material hardship of those at the bottom of the labor market,” said Alex Wood, a researcher at Oxford University.
Wood, who was not involved in the study, states that this research could make ripples in lawmakers’ decisions, especially now that jobs, automation, and health are all being analyzed. For instance, several businesses in Sweden have tried six-hour workdays. Within the first 18 months of this trial, the nurses involved had increased their productivity, had fewer sick days, and experienced overall better health. 
However, it’s important to note that reducing work hours also means reducing work, not just cramming a week’s worth into one day. There will have to be a shift toward the importance of leisure time and away from hustle culture.
“Human beings are not built to be subordinated to others for work,” Ewan McGaughey, a senior lecturer at King’s College, London, and a research associate at the Centre for Business Research at Cambridge University said. “We are social animals who find value in contributing to society, but we also value leisure, family, and community. All these things require less working time.”
Today’s culture often revolves around living to work. Even our leisure time is preoccupied with preparing for work by washing our work clothes, grocery shopping, cleaning, and recharging our energy after a long day. More free time means learning how to enjoy it.
“If we are going to move towards this time in the future when we’ve got more leisure time because robots and intelligent machines can do more of our work,” said Brendan Burchell, co-author of the study and a sociology researcher at The University of Cambridge. “We ought to take it seriously in school to educate people to have good leisure as well as educating them to be good employees.”
- “The Case for an 8-Hour Work Week.” Vice. Shayla Love. June 21, 2019
- “A shorter working week for everyone: How much paid work is needed for mental health and well-being?” Social Science and Medicine. Daiga Kamerādea, Senhu Wang, Brendan Burchell, Sarah Ursula Balderson, Adam Coutts. November 2019.
- “How Many Productive Hours in a Work Day? Just 2 Hours, 23 Minutes…” Voucher Cloud.
- “An 8-hour work week could be ideal for mental health.” Medical News Today. Maria Cohut, Ph.D. June 21, 2019
- “What really happened when Swedes tried six-hour days?” BBC. February 8, 2017
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