The 40-hour work week has become so ingrained in American culture we rarely think about why it is structured the way it is. Working a 40-hour week is synonymous with a ‘full-time’ job, with a ‘part-time’ job usually being anywhere between 20-38 hours per week, but why? We’ll dive into the dizzying history and the realities of the 40-hour workweek in today’s world below.

The History of the 40-Hour Workweek

The Origins of the 40-Hour Workweek

The reality of the 40-hour workweek starts nearly 200 years ago, in 1866, and has an interesting history full of twists and turns, that remind us of the successes we have had in our labor force as a country, and how far we have left to go, too.

August 1866

A newly formed subsect of the national labor union asks Congress to make the minimum workday 8 hours. This does not pass, but this group encouraged and inspired Americans to continue to push for the 8-hour workday.

Why? Well, because back then, lots of workers were working closer to 10 to 15-hour days. The work conditions were grueling and taxing. The proposed 8-hour workday was backed with arguments about how it could improve workers’ health, familial relationships, and education among other things.

May 1867

The Illinois legislature passes a state law mandating an 8-hour workday. Although the 8-hour workday would benefit many workers, some still opposed it. Strikes broke out in the streets. Mandating an 8-hour workday, for some, meant less food on the table. This day became known as ‘May Day’.

May 1869

President Grant releases a proclamation stating that he will guarantee fair wages and a stable 8-hour day – for government workers. This inspired non-government workers to push for the same rights, though.

The 1870s through 1880s

Many labor unions and organizations form, such as Knights of Labor and the Federation of Organized Trades. They continued their efforts to organize strikes and get the message out about the importance of a mandated 40-hour work week.

September 1916

Congress successfully passes the Adamson Act, a federal mandate which enforced a 40-hour workweek for interstate railroad employees. The act was constitutionalized the year following.

September 1926

Ford Motors introduces and enforces a 40-hour workweek for their employees.

June 1938

Congress passes the Fair Labor Standards Act, enforcing a national limit of a 44-hour work week.

June 1940

Congress amends the prior Fair Labor Standards Act to nationally limit the workweek to 40 hours for all. And the rest is history.

How the 40-Hour Workweek Has Evolved

In today’s day and age, it might feel like the 40-hour workweek is more a suggestion than a steadfast rule. Particularly for managers, executives, and an array of salaried employees – it is quite easy to work over 40 hours.

In Gallup’s annual Work and Education Report, adult full-time employees reported that they worked 47 hours per week, on average. Nearly 4 in 10 full-time employees in the U.S. report working 50 hours per week or more. Only 8% of full-time employees reported they work less than 40 hours per week.

For hourly employees, working over 40 hours can be difficult. Many employers shy away from employees working more hours than required, mainly for financial reasons. However, with labor shortages in the U.S., many hourly employees may be working overtime just to keep up with company demands.

On the other hand, you may see salaried employees working hours outside of their 40-hour designation fairly frequently. Companies don’t monitor these employees’ hours, and therefore, these employees can end up putting in much more than the 40-hour requirement, with no additional payment required from the employer. Some employers may see this as a win, but employees may find it difficult to draw the line or know when to say ‘no’ to extra projects or tasks.

Plus, with the boom of work from home and remote work capabilities in recent history, these lines have become a lot blurrier. Employees can easily log on to their work applications from anywhere, whether it’s their living room or hotel, and work, even if it’s outside of their required 40-hour allotment.

Some countries, such as France, are enacting laws against these practices. France recently enacted the ‘right to disconnect” law. Which requires companies with more than 50 employees to set limits on hours where employees are prohibited from sending emails.

Such a law might be a difficult task in a country like America, whose foundations are built on the fruits of capitalism and largely ‘hustle culture’, which encourages people to work as often and as hard as they can. However, American companies are showing interest in reimagining the workweek, using several different strategies to make the 40-hour workweek a feasible reality again.

Alternatives to the 40-Hour Workweek

Given the recent events that America has faced, namely, the pandemic causing employees to deeply reconsider their work/life balance. And seek out remote-only work opportunities. Many companies are trying to revamp the 40-hour workweek to make it more accommodating to a variety of employee needs.

There are many options on the table that companies are experimenting with to make the 40-hour workweek (or in some cases, less) a reality yet again.

The 4 Day 40-Hour Workweek

If employees can agree to work 10-hour days, the 4-day, 40-hour workweek offers an attractive upside: Fridays off! With a 4-day, 40-hour workweek, employees would be scheduled for 10-hour days, each day. For example, this would look like a shift that starts at 9 am and ends at 7 pm, Monday through Friday.

When talking about it, 10-hour days seem long. However, it’s not too far off-base from what employees may already be doing on their own. If a standard 9 to 5 employee checks emails, messages, or anything else work-related from the hours of 5-7 pm, it’s likely many employees are already working closer to ten hours per day.

Annualized Hours

Annualized hours reimagine and reinvigorate what an employee can do with their time. Instead of a strict 40-hour workweek. Companies can choose to outline a specific number of hours the employee must work by the end of the year; but leave when the employee works these hours up to them.

This may take some more careful management of people and their tasks; however, this method offers huge upsides in comparison to the 40-hour workweek.

This model of scheduling allows employees to work when they are most productive. For example, with annualized hours, an employee could work for a few hours in the morning. Take a long break, and then return to their work for a few hours in the evening.

Flex Schedules

This method is growing in popularity at many companies in the U.S. The concept is simple – employees can start and end work at whatever time is best for them, if they put in 8 hours a day, resulting in a 40-hour workweek. Some employees might want to come in at 11 am and leave at 7 pm, that’s OK. Early birds might want to start work at 7 am and leave at 3 pm, which in this model is also OK.

This model keeps a handle on employee management and task management while still allowing employees to have some agency in their work/life balance. And choose their peak performance times to work in.

Less Focus on Hours, More Focus on Results

One of the more radical approaches to reimaging the 40-hour workweek is a scheduling system that does not require employees to work certain days, hours, or timeframes. Instead, this method of scheduling focuses on task completion and deadlines. If the employees hit their deadlines. Whether that be on completed projects or sales made, that is all that matters in this model.

This model can be tough to implement because you may be paying someone their 40-hour salary, all the while they only are working 20 hours per week. In this model, the only thing that is monitored is the tasks at hand. Some proficient employees may be able to complete entire weeks’ worth of tasks in just a few hours. So, this model raises an important concern of how it can fit into a salary model.

However, this model has attractive upsides if it’s implemented correctly. After all, lots of people can agree that a lot of their workday is spent filled with pointless tasks or busy work. With this model of scheduling, fewer filler tasks are needed. And employees can complete the central tasks they are asked to do with less “fluff” in between.

Bottom Line

As we grow as a society, so should the way we think about work. It’s only natural that we will soon outgrow the 40-hour workweek standards we fought so hard for nearly 100 years ago, and this is normal. New circumstances – such as financial hardships, mental health, and the pandemic.

Have forced us to change the way we think about our workweeks. If you want your organization to move more gracefully into the future. It’s never a bad idea to reevaluate which type of workweek schedule will keep your employees the happiest and most engaged for years to come.