If new research suggests that cutting the hours of older workers could boost productivity—and a company’s bottom line—should employers take heed?
While the prospect may sound outlandish, consider that Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford was viewed as a radical—and was even called “crazy”—when in 1914 he doubled employees’ pay and reduced their work time from nine to eight hours a day.
“Employers should not ignore any credible research that has implications for employee productivity,” said Jennifer Case, an attorney with Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP in Atlanta, who weighed in on the researchers’ February study of more than 6,000 Australian workers. “Ford’s decision panned out and within a few years, Ford’s competitors made the same change. In more recent times, employers have responded to research that happier employers are more productive. Think Google and Facebook.”
The researchers, who published their findings in the Melbourne Institute's Working Paper Series
, studied about 3,500 women and 3,000 men in Australia, with various education levels, the majority of whom were between 40 and 69 years old.
The researchers wrote that working 25 to 30 hours had a positive effect on middle-aged and older men's cognitive skills and reported similar results for older women working 22 to 27 hours. In other words, the research findings suggest that workers over 40 should enjoy four-day weekends each week to stay sharp and vigorous.
Benefits of Shorter Workweeks
While such a radical rethinking of the workweek seems implausible, the research raises compelling questions about the best ways to keep older Americans engaged and productive while on the job. At the same time, it raises equally compelling questions about equity in the workplace.
“I do think that a significant percentage of employees who think of themselves as near retirement would like to have the option of remaining employed with a reduced schedule,” said Shane Muñoz, an attorney with FordHarrison in Tampa, Fla. “Some are afraid to suggest that because they are concerned that their employer might question their commitment or their stamina. I think employers are also afraid to suggest it, for fear of creating an impression that they harbor stereotypical attitudes. Perhaps this study affords an opportunity for a more open dialogue on the subject.”
Some workplace consultants already recommend having employees work fewer hours to boost productivity, although not necessarily just for older employees.
“We recommend to our clients that they experiment with alternative schedules, flexible schedules and shorter working hours to see if it drives better outcomes,” said Bruce Tulgan, founder of management training firm RainmakerThinking, a management research, training and consulting firm in New Haven, Conn. “That experimentation should be done one person at a time. It makes sense to start with more experienced workers who already have a track record. Then it can be applied to newer workers.”
And some employers are already experimenting with shorter workweeks as a way to boost morale and productivity—although, again, not necessarily just for older workers.
“Employers are already taking a look at having fewer work hours for new hires, ” said Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding, a Gen Y research and management consulting firm, and author of Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success (St. Martin’s Press, 2013). “They've done this to prevent burnout, increase employee satisfaction and remain competitive.”
Said Muñoz: “I certainly see clients who are open to considering accommodations for employees who prefer part-time schedules and situations where some measures of performance improve with reduced hours. I don’t expect, however, that well-advised employers will single out older workers, as a group, for reduced hours based on this study."
And in some industries, longer-tenured employees enjoy shorter workweeks as a “rite of passage,” Schawbel said.
“As you gain authority in the financial world, it gives you more flexibility. A banker’s first two years are the most challenging and they are known to give up nearly all of their personal life to their companies as analysts. After the two-year mark, they are promoted and start to reclaim a more normal lifestyle.”
There are risks, however, to considering shorter workweeks for older employees. For instance, it could make older workers vulnerable if such research becomes an argument for employers to give them part-time work with no benefits.
“You would essentially be creating a new category of employees that may consider themselves full-time but fall below the full-time threshold that exists today,” Case said. “For example, if they work less than 30 hours a week, then employers would not be required to make an offer of coverage in accordance with the Affordable Care Act.”
Moreover, if they worked fewer hours, older workers may be viewed as more expendable than younger ones, Schawbel said.
“The issue that many older workers have is the perception that they are less capable than younger workers, which is age discrimination, and that they are expensive, so many companies will lay them off and replace them with younger workers who will work for less [money].”
Discrimination and Resentment?
In general, it is not advisable to determine employees’ work schedules based on their age, Tulgan said.
Workers older than 40 are a protected class under federal law, he noted, “so employers need to be very careful.”
“It makes no sense to determine work conditions based on age,” he said. “The generational lens through which we can learn about the workforce tells us a lot, but we recommend against trying to have employment conditions, rewards or any such thing based on age or generation.”
Said Kris Duggan, CEO of BetterWorks, a goal-setting software and services provider in the San Francisco Bay area: “While there are some exceptions, like contract workers, requiring some employees to work less hours than others could create a backlash within your organization. Questions about compensation, employee evaluations and even bias from lack of face time will immediately surge.”
Millennial workplace advisor Lindsey Pollak of The Hartford, which offers property and casualty insurance, group benefits, and mutual funds, said that “year over year, The Hartford’s Millennial research has shown that a flexible schedule is incredibly important to Generation Y.”
In The Hartford’s most recent national survey, a majority or near-majority of Millennials said they want flexibility in the following: the timing of the workday, the days they work (weekdays vs. weekends), their amount of paid time off, where they work, and the number of hours they work.
Resentment aside, treating workers of one age group differently from those of another almost always opens a company to liability, Muñoz said.
“In today’s litigious environment, I absolutely would expect legal action, but I would expect it to come from those who aren’t given the opportunity to work a ‘full’ schedule based on an assumption that because they are over 40 years of age their productivity will drop off with extended hours.”