I’m a little obsessed with work hours and work schedules. We each have 24 hours in one day--that’s 168 hours in one week. Why work 40 of those hours? 40?? What about MORE? LESS? When should these hours be worked? Where?
The 40-hour workweek gained traction around the mid 1800’s as labor unions and legislators were attempting to mandate work schedules that would be more suitable to the health, safety, and productivity of adults and the children that worked alongside them in those days. It turns out, employees are safer, healthier, and more productive when they work shifts that are compatible with the productive capacity of the human body and human mind – that’s roughly 8 hours in a workday (some say less). Employees make fewer mistakes and provide higher quality service and care within the 8-hour time frame making their clients, customers, and patients better off. Knowledge workers - a major part of the labor market these days - can also do their work flexibly. That means they can fit their 8 hours of work into the times and places that also capitalize on their own work styles and energy cycles. This allows them to bring optimum focus and creativity to their work.
The 40-hour workweek also allows employees to have a life outside of work. It turns out that its also good for their work. Research on recovery from work has shown that psychological detachment from work through leisure, recreation, socializing, and relaxation after work sets one up for a great start to the next workday. On the other hand, doing work at home, doing housework, and doing errands does not allow for the recovery needed to bring vigor to the next day’s tasks.
If the 40-hour workweek is the sweet spot for individuals, is 80 hours the sweet spot for couples? In fact, there is evidence that the 80-hour work week is about right for dual-income couples. One study showed that when both spouses worked full-time (combined 80 hours), or one or both spouses worked less than full-time, they experienced lower levels of work overload, work-family conflict, and stress1. This is particularly true for couples with children at home. While that study seems to show that the 40/40 split between spouses was the best arrangement, there are other ways to distribute the 80 hours between two working spouses/partners.
I once interviewed women with home-based businesses about their work-family schedules2. One thing that struck me is that they all described being married to husbands who had demanding work hours and said that part-time work through entrepreneurship was the only way they felt they could have a satisfying work life but also not have things completely fall apart at home. This was echoed in a later study of working parents3. Some couples said that if one spouse had a demanding career and worked long hours, the other spouse needed to work fewer hours and have more flexibility (like a 50/30 or 60/20 split). At the extreme is the 80/0 split. This is exemplified by common dating advice for would-be CEO's, who are often told to find someone who wants to be a stay-at-home spouse, because when you’re working 70-80 hours, the spouse will need to ‘hold down the fort’.
For dual-income couples with young children, work scheduling can be an ongoing challenge. When spouses have a 70 or 80-hour workweek shared between the two of them, plus some flexibility thrown in for good measure, it means they can meet the 3:37 p.m. school bus, get the three children to three different after-school activities, have a healthy dinner, walk the dog, and even make it to the gym. I spoke with families like that. They felt like life was busy but not chaotic. They also felt that sharing the load between the two of them meant that they could each give their best at work. I also spoke with couples who shared 90-100 hours between them. They talked about the breakfast dishes still sitting at the table when they got home from work and regularly skipping sleep to work until the early hours of the morning. When I see couples like that, I’m reminded that work-family conflict is one of the top issues that marriage therapists see in their daily practices. When couples are experiencing high levels of work overload and stress, their relationships suffer. Surely their work must too.
If your organization’s not ready to adopt the 35-hour workweek just yet or find it bizarre to contemplate negotiating an official organizational role for the CEO’s spouse4; start with real flexibility. Minimally, organizations need to develop practices and culture around flexible work and train managers to think about win-win flex strategies that help employees manage their life outside of work so that they can enthusiastically meet all their goals at work.
Heather Cluley, Ph.D. is the Associate Director in the Graduate HRD program at Villanova University. Learn more about her here!
Moen, P., & Yu, Y. (2000). Effective work/life strategies: Working couples, work conditions, gender, and life quality. Social problems, 47(3), 291-326.
Cluley, H. and Hecht, T. (2013). My business, my home and I: The Work-Life Boundaries and Social Identities of Women With Home-Based Businesses. Presented at the Administrative Sciences of Canada annual conference, June 8-11, Calgary, Alberta.
Cluley, H., & Hecht, T. D. (2019). Micro work‐family decision‐making of dual‐income couples with young children: What does a couple like us do in a situation like this? Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1111/joop.12282
The Very Model of A Modern CEO Spouse. (n.d.). Retrieved October 05, 2019, from https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/hr-magazine/pages/1004execbrief.aspx
Photo Credits: Kevin Simmons & Lyncconf Games