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Is It Time to Kill the 40-Hour Workweek?

Henry Ford's ideal schedule for employees may no longer be relevant in today's knowledge economy.


​In June 2015, the founder of Tower Paddle Boards realized there was a disconnect between his company’s brand and its culture. He was selling a product that promoted a balanced and active lifestyle, yet he wasn’t nurturing that way of life among his nine employees. That’s why Stephan Aarstol decided to cut the workday from eight hours to five.

 “We are living the brand,” says Aarstol, who started the San Diego-based company that makes stand-up paddle boards in 2010.

Paradoxically, fewer work hours are yielding greater success at Tower. For the 12 months that ended in June 2016, revenues rose 42 percent, and sales were on track to hit $9 million by year-end, according to Aarstol. 

Here’s how the plan works: Employees forgo a lunch hour, so there’s a net loss of only two hours of actual work time from the day. However, people’s pay and job obligations remain the same, so workers must operate under tighter time constraints. It’s a challenge they accepted eagerly, Aarstol says, in exchange for more free time.

“That is a huge incentive,” he says. “The whole point of work is to raise your quality of life, but that’s been bastardized and now people think the point of life is to work.”

Indeed, despite the well-documented link between overwork and stress—and between stress and negative health and business outcomes—U.S. employees continue to put in long hours. The average American works 47 hours a week—essentially six days instead of five, according to a recent Gallup survey. And 39 percent of workers said they dedicate more than 50 hours a week to their jobs. 

Meanwhile, more than 8 in 10 U.S. workers are stressed at their jobs due to increased responsibilities and stagnating pay, according to a 2013 study by Harris Interactive

The impact of that strain is considerable. A 2015 study by Harvard Business School and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business revealed that job-related anxiety contributes to more than 120,000 deaths and a whopping $190 billion a year in health care expenses. And even with the proliferation of today’s flexible work arrangements—from telecommuting to flextime to job sharing—the issues of stress and overwork remain intractable. 

That has led some experts, and leaders like Aarstol, to believe it’s time to question our society’s slavish devotion to the 40-hour framework—or at least to the way it’s treated as a one-size-fits-all model for every company, employee and job function. After all, the standard American workweek, which traces its roots to the industrial age, may be ill-suited for a knowledge-based economy.

“One of the biggest failures of how business is set up is that we are measured by how much we work and not by what we accomplish,” says Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project (Crown Business, 2016). “It’s easy to measure time. It is harder to measure the work of the brain.”

While it’s not likely that a revolution against the 40-hour workweek will sweep the U.S. labor market anytime soon, it makes sense for HR professionals to consider whether the decades-old assumptions they’ve made about work, well, work anymore. 

How We Got Here

When the Industrial Revolution came to the U.S. in the mid-1800s, workers routinely devoted nine- and 10-hour days to expanding the country’s burgeoning transportation and manufacturing sectors. Weekends as we now know them, as respites from work, did not exist: People kept toiling through Saturday and often Sunday as well. Jobs were plentiful, but labor was cheap—and benefits nearly nonexistent.

Then, in 1924, automotive tycoon Henry Ford adopted a 40-hour workweek because he thought his employees would buy more cars if they had more leisure time. Other employers followed suit, and the eight-hours-a-day, Monday-through-Friday schedule was born. 

‘One of the biggest failures of how business is set up is that we are measured by how much we work and not by what we accomplish.’

—Chris Bailey

In the 1980s, Americans began pushing the envelope on the 40-hour model. As Wall Street boomed, bankers holed themselves up in their offices for days at a time putting together monster takeovers that ended with huge paychecks. Even though most Americans couldn’t replicate that lifestyle—or compensation—many adopted the frenzied pace. 

“Culture flows down,” says Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014). “Everyone wants to do what the elites are doing.” 

In addition, the 21st century tech boom convinced many that being glued to a computer was the path to inventing the next Facebook. And during the Great Recession, people feared that if they didn’t look busy, they might wind up on the unemployment line. At the same time, smartphones and tablets began to serve as virtual umbilical cords to the office. “It is hard to just turn off,” Schulte says.

A Burgeoning New Model

History aside, there’s no evidence that keeping zombie-like hours leads to greater productivity or more-imaginative problem-solving. In fact, many people’s workdays are consumed by such drudgery as attending unnecessary meetings or responding to one-off e-mail requests. According to a recent study by software developer Workfront, U.S. employees spent only 39 percent of their time at work actually doing their jobs in 2016, down from 46 percent a year earlier. 

If employers want excellent results, they need to realize that people become less thoughtful and creative after five or six hours, Bailey says, drawing on years of productivity research. “Hours are the wrong focus.” 

Unfortunately, there’s a lingering perception that working anything less than 40 hours in a week results in lower productivity. “Part-time work is still seen as a deviation from ‘real work,’” says Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute. “It will be interesting to see if Amazon normalizes part-time work.”

Galinsky is referring to the pilot program launched by retail giant Amazon in August 2016, which allows employees to work 30-hour weeks for 75 percent of their salary and full benefits. The twist is that entire departments, including managers, will operate on the truncated schedule. The pilot is based on the premise that workers whose compensation is adjusted for fewer hours will be more likely to adhere to the shorter schedule if they are surrounded by colleagues who work the same amount of time.

A positive result would likely spark many copycats. The much-coveted Millennial generation—which will make up half the workforce by 2020—regards work/life balance as the most important factor in selecting an employer, excluding salary, according to the 2016 Deloitte Millennial Survey. So companies are bending over backward to satisfy that generation’s preferred schedules.

Yet most employers aren’t yet ready to touch the 40-hour sacred cow. “At this point, if you get all your work done in 30 hours, all that is going to happen is that someone is going to give you more work to do,” says Claire Bissot, managing director at CBIZ HR Services, a division of CBIZ, professional services company. She provides HR consulting services to about 35 small to midsize companies.

Indeed, many smaller organizations are not particularly enthusiastic about offering telecommuting and other flex options—let alone shortening the workday. But Bissot’s clients are slowly adapting to provide these alternatives because Millennials are becoming increasingly vocal about demanding them.

[SHRM members-only resource: toolkitsManaging Flexible Work Arrangements.]

The European Way

Given that so few U.S. companies have actually tried shorter workweeks, it is hard to tell whether the concept is viable on a mass scale in this country. Most of the companies that have embraced the idea are small startups that don’t have to worry about shaking up existing cultures and attitudes.

But some businesses in Europe are implementing six-hour workdays for the same pay as eight. Sweden, which has a tradition of offering generous social benefits, has been a leader in this area. Many small Swedish companies, and even entire towns, have opted for the six-hour model. 

In February 2015, 80 assistant nurses at an elder care home in Gothenburg, Sweden, began working a 30-hour week made up of six-hour workdays on an eight-hour salary as part of a controlled trial. They are being compared to the same number of staff members working a traditional eight-hour day at a similar employer, according to a BBC report. 

An audit published in April 2016 indicated that the program in its first year sharply reduced absenteeism while boosting productivity and worker health.

“It’s so interesting how it’s catching on like wildfire” outside the U.S., says Pramila Rao, associate professor at Marymount University in Arlington, Va., where she teaches global HR management. However, adopting the concept would require a major change in mindset—from leadership and employees—for it to work in the U.S., where toiling for long hours often is associated with more pay and career advancement opportunities.

“We are so hesitant to even take vacation time,” Rao says. She thinks the U.S. suffers from an epidemic of presenteeism—the tendency of employees to come to work even when sick, injured or stressed and thus be unable to put in optimal effort.

Should You Shorten Your Workweek? Weighing the Pros and Cons


  • Allows employers to draw from a greater talent pool, including those who can’t work a traditional schedule.

  • May cause some to feel more stressed about operating under rigid time constraints. 

  • Attracts flexibility-minded Millennials, who will soon make up the majority of employees. 

  • Complicates managers’ jobs if they must oversee employees with different schedules.

  • Engenders loyalty since few other employers offer shorter-schedule options.

  • Can alienate clients and customers accustomed to being able to reach business contacts during traditional hours.

  • ​May drive both workers and managers to be more productive—cutting out unnecessary meetings and other time-sucking activities. 

  • Could run afoul of state laws governing that employees receive breaks at certain times.

New Punches on the Time Clock

At the same time, leaders and HR professionals at U.S. companies are starting to tinker around the edges of the standard framework in an effort to foster happier—and possibly more-productive—workforces. Here are some ways organizations are innovating new approaches to the traditional five-day, 40-hour work schedule:

Forgoing Fridays. Conservation organization World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which has 6,200 employees, has been giving its workforce every other Friday off since 2008.  The perk requires employees to put in 70 hours of work over nine days, but they are granted significant latitude to do so.

“The staff really loves it,” says Valerie Blain-Smith, vice president of human resources at WWF. Besides boosting morale, the benefit aligns with the organization’s environmental mission. Less commuting and less use of electricity in the office save energy. 

Part-time work. WWF also allows individuals to work as few as 21 hours a week while retaining full benefits. Blain-Smith, who herself started in a part-time role, stresses that the organization values part-time work and does not consider it an impediment to career advancement.

Professional services company KPMG also offers individuals the option of working part time while retaining full benefits and staying on a path to advancement. Many of the firm’s partners are among those who worked part time, says Barbara Wankoff, KPMG’s executive director of diversity and inclusion, and almost everyone at KPMG has taken advantage of the company’s various work/life benefits at some point.

“We work hard to let people know they can take time away without being penalized,” she says. 

At KPMG, employees are encouraged to talk to their managers and team members about ways to ensure that their personal obligations are met and the client is served. 

“It may be complicated, but it is worth it,” Wankoff says. At this point, the company isn’t considering any wholesale change to working hours. 

Compressed schedule. Many organizations offer compressed schedules—letting employees work 40 hours over a shorter span than the usual five-day workweek—as a flexibility option. 

But Reusser Design, a Web development and design agency based in Roanoke, Ind., rolled out a companywide 40-hour, four-day workweek with Fridays off in 2013. Company Founder and President Nate Reusser thought the approach would be a good way to attract and retain employees to the then-14-year-old firm. 

By 2014, however, some employees were struggling with those hours, so Reusser offered them the option of spreading their time over five days a week. 

Since then, he has found it challenging to coordinate the different schedules of his 14 employees with client needs, and he is considering selecting one schedule or the other.

“I need more metrics,” Reusser says. “I don’t want to make a rash decision.”

[SHRM members-only resource: How-to guides—How to Implement Alternate Workweek Schedules in California.]

The lesson here may be to think through whether forcing longer days on everyone in an effort to free up Friday is truly an employee-friendly strategy. Many parents, for example, need the flexibility to vary their schedules in order to meet their children’s daily needs. 

Giving employees every other Friday off aligns with WWF’s environmental mission. Less commuting and less use of electricity in the office save energy.

—Valerie Blain-Smith

At Tower Paddle Boards, Aarstol has no plans to change his new 25-hour week policy, saying it has only enhanced the productivity that placed the company on Inc.’s 2014 list of the 500 fastest-growing companies. Tower was also featured on the TV show “Shark Tank,” where Aarstol enticed billionaire Mark Cuban to become an investor. 

Executives consistently ask Aarstol how he manages to be so successful on abbreviated hours. After listening to his story, they tell him, “That wouldn’t work for my business.” He acknowledges that the specifics of Tower’s situation help make the nontraditional schedule work: The firm is small—just nine employees—and there certainly wouldn’t be any cataclysmic results if someone didn’t get their paddle board on time.

Still, he believes that re-examining the workweek could lead others to success as well—if they would just give it a chance.

“It really is about changing your psychology,” he says.

20th Century Milestones on the Path to the 40-Hour Workweek 


​Henry Ford shifts from nine-hour to eight-hour days, though employees still work six days a week.  
Congress passes the Adamson Act, named after William Adamson, a U.S. Representative from Georgia, establishing an eight-hour workday for all interstate rail workers to avoid a strike. 


Ford moves to a five-day workweek, closing his factories on weekends. He believed that if workers had more leisure time, they would buy more products, including his cars

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which mandates a federal standard for a 44-hour workweek. The law also requires a minimum wage and overtime pay for those working more than 44 hours a week. 
The FLSA is updated to lower the federal standard to 40 hours a week. 

Theresa Agovino is a freelance business writer based in New York City.

Illustration by Pete Ryan for HR Magazine.

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