Plenty of evidence suggests that cutting back on hours can have substantial benefits, and not just because people are usually happier when they work less. If done right, shortening the workday can also boost productivity.
Work less, do more: It's an appealing idea that's becoming reality for a growing number of people in Sweden, where some companies are shortening their workdays from eight hours to six or even fewer.
But is it really possible to accomplish the same amount of work in less time?
The answer likely depends on the person and the type of work, experts say. But plenty of evidence suggests that cutting back on hours can have substantial benefits, and not just because people are usually happier when they work less. If done right, shortening the workday can also boost efficiency.
"We think the longer we make people work, the more productivity we will get," says John Trougakos, an organizational psychologist at the University of Toronto. "The longer day is not the better day."
The average American works about 47 hours a week -- and many people work much more than that, even though a glut of recent studies have linked long hours and overtime with numerous health problems.
People who work too much are more likely to gain weight, fall short on sleep, get in car accidents, suffer workplace injuries and develop stress-related illnesses. Sitting for long stretches of time has been linked to cardiovascular disease and higher risks of death. And as fatigue sets in at the end of a long day, risks go up for eyestrain, headaches and muscle pain, while mistakes become more common.
Dealing with those health issues and mishaps can end up costing companies a significant amount of money. One recent study estimated that stress in the workplace contributes to 120,000 deaths each year and as much as 8 percent of healthcare costs in the United States.
When it comes to getting stuff done, productivity can also suffer as the day stretches on, in part because our brains, like other muscles, reach a point of diminishing return at which it takes ever more effort to maintain the same pace. A number of studies have found that intense periods of mental exertion can impair people's ability to solve puzzles, make decisions, control emotions and more.
"People are often treated like we have this battery that will let us work at peak efficiency until the battery runs out," Trougakos says. "Substantial evidence shows that's not true."
The scientific literature is less clear about how many hours, exactly, is ideal. In one recent attempt to quantify the relationship between hours worked and work accomplished, John Pencavel, a labor economist at Stanford University, used data collected on munitions workers during the First World War to show that productivity increased steadily up to about 49 hours a week.
Beyond that, people continued to complete more with more time, but at a much slower rate. Initial results from a study that includes more recent data on people working in a wider variety of industries, he says, appears to be consistent with those results.
An intense week of work can have detrimental effects that linger on, Pencavel adds. In one analysis, he found that munition workers produced less if they worked seven 10-hour days than if they worked six 8-hour days. And their productivity continued to suffer the next week, even if they scaled back their hours.
"There's a lot of evidence that workers today reach a level of stress such that bad things happen," Pencavel says. "Workers need time to recover from work."
No matter how many hours people toil away, research also shows that breaks are essential. In a study published last year, Trougakos and colleagues found that people who relaxed during lunch and had control over their lunch breaks (even if the chose to work during that time) were less fatigued -- a measure that is repeatedly linked with performance.
Another recent study used a time-tracker tool to analyze the habits of employees at a social media company. Results showed that the most productive 10 percent worked intensely for 52 minutes, followed by 17-minute breaks.
A six-hour workday is not realistic for everyone, but most companies could benefit from at least taking a closer look at their own inefficiencies, says Steve Langerud, an independent workplace consultant in Grinnell, Iowa. He encourages employers to start with the end goal of how much work needs to be accomplished and then work backwards to figure out how long that will take.
The key is to measure what employees are actually doing with their time -- and to emphasize efficiency within the time allotted, especially if it's truncated. The Swedish companies that are adopting shorter days are telling employees to eliminate casual Internet browsing and social media use, according to news reports. They're also cutting down on meetings that are unnecessary or unnecessarily long.
"I think employees spend more time complaining about being there and wishing they were somewhere else," Langerud says. "You might as well say, ‘Come in for six hours and bang it out.'"