Working for the Weekend

Morgan O'Rourke


September 1, 2014

If you work the typical 9-to-5, eight-hour grind, there are days when it seems like the clock is going backwards and quitting time will never arrive. Those eight hours stretch into eternity, as if you're paying a penance for some unknown transgression, most likely committed over a weekend that went by as fast as the workday was slow. Such is the burden of the modern worker. But it wasn't always this way. Sometimes it was much worse.

In the late 18th century, during the Industrial Revolution, workers usually put in 10 to 16 hours a day, six days a week. While this pace kept the factories running, it was physically and mentally draining. Labor reform advocates began calling for an eight-hour standard, spearheaded by Welsh reformer Robert Owen's slogan, "Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest." Shorter workdays were adopted by some professions-usually after protests and strikes-but over the next century, change was slow and sporadic.

But in 1914, much to the dismay of its competitors, the Ford Motor Company not only cut its workday to eight hours but also doubled workers' pay. When productivity actually increased and profit margins doubled in just two years, most other companies followed Henry Ford's lead and the eight-hour workday became standard. A century later, a 9-to-5 workday remains the basic expectation for most jobs.

These days, however, advances in technology usually mean that many of us are "unofficially" working even when we're not in the office, often long past "quitting" time. Many organizations have also adopted flexible work arrangements in which employees can vary their hours or work remotely as dictated by their needs and the needs of the business. It's a strategy that places more value on maximizing productivity and getting results than it does on making sure employees are chained to their desks at specific times of the day. Since companies are already acknowledging that working 9 to 5, five days a week is not the optimal arrangement for all employees, perhaps it is time to reevaluate this standard.

In July, Mexican telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim—the world's richest or second-richest person, depending on the day—offered one such solution. He proposed a three-day workweek of 11-hour days, with workers postponing retirement until they reach their 70s. His thinking is that, by giving workers more time to relax, their health and quality of life would improve, making them more productive in turn.

Of course, such a change is probably too dramatic for many businesses to consider. For one thing, employees might love the idea of a 33-hour week, but would probably be less enamored with what would likely be a corresponding drop in pay. And, barring a massive cultural shift, three days in the office hardly seems enough to keep pace with a world full of aggressive competition and customer demands for near-instantaneous communication.

This doesn't mean that traditional work arrangements don't need improvement, however. Technology has made us more productive, but it hasn't necessarily eased our workloads, and the stress is slowly killing us. For some companies, the solution might be as simple as borrowing a page from the Seoul city government, which recently gave its workers permission to take afternoon naps. Others might benefit from more drastic schedule changes to keep their workers happy, healthy and productive. We've improved just about every other aspect of the workplace in the last century, so why not this?

And if I somehow end up with a longer weekend in the deal, I'm certainly not going to complain.

Morgan O’Rourke is editor in chief of Risk Management and director of publications for the Risk & Insurance Management Society, Inc. (RIMS)