How Do You Feel About a 40-Hour Week?

The answer to that question depends on a lot of things. First, do you have a job? Is it a part-time or full-time position? Are you an hourly or salary employee?

How has the economy affected your industry? How much money do you need to sustain your lifestyle? Does your boss like you? Are you motivated enough to work overtime? Do you have the time available to do so?

Etc, etc…

An interesting article at the Wall Street Journal confirms what we’ve known to be the case all along—40 hours for professional employees is perceived in many industries to be a part-time week.

Nearly 38% of men with professional and managerial positions worked over 50 hours a week between 2006 and 2008…

TLNT picked up the article and offered their own comments:

Sometimes, if [employees are] non-exempt, they do this without putting in for the proper overtime they have coming because they know doing so would cause grief for their supervisors and they would be accused of not being a “team player.”

People who want to get ahead, rightly or wrongly, know they need to put in more than the usual 40 hours if they want to succeed.

When I first read this analysis, I honestly wanted to throw up. Our collective drive has blinded us to the realities of human life and the long-term effects of this kind of approach to work, to the point where we willingly throw the legal requirements of employment out the window.

The reality is, however, that if you’re not willing to put in the time, 30 people are lined up at your manager’s door, ready and willing to take your spot. In what continues to be a high-unemployment economy, employees are at a significant disadvantage and under a lot of pressure to perform.

The old saying is truer than ever—many of us are working more and more for less and less.

I see hope though, because this isn’t the case with everyone. Many employers are using the bad economy to differentiate themselves and show employees exactly how much they appreciate them. Others still have moved on from their corporate jobs and are paving their own way through self-employment, setting their own hours and expectations.

40 Hours for Me

For a long time, I was a workaholic, taking on as much as I could handle and often more. It’s true that this contributed to me getting ahead, but it came at a price. I was often burned out, sick, and my life felt out of balance.

Today, I have a different take on the 40-hour week, perhaps fitting more with my own generation’s increased focus on work-family balance. I see 40 hours as a ceiling, not a floor. My responsibilities extend beyond my job—to my family, my hobbies, my health and spiritual well-being, my personal development and social time.

Yes, I work in a profession that occasionally requires 70-hour efforts to complete a project. I recognize that need and cater to it on a temporary basis, as I would expect anyone else to do. But I also see the effect on colleagues who can’t or won’t put their foot down and put in those weeks on a regular basis. It takes a toll.

I believe that the 40-hour work week is an antiquated measure of productivity. I prefer to see my week in terms of what I’ve accomplished, not how long I’ve worked. Working 50 hours and accomplishing little, means little. Working 30 and accomplishing much; that’s progress and a way forward.

There’s a quote I love from the recent 37signals book, ReWork. When talking about why workaholics aren’t effective, the authors write:

Workaholics make the people who don’t stay late feel inadequate for “merely” working reasonable hours. That leads to guilt and poor morale all around. Plus, it leads to an ass- in- seat mentality—people stay late out of obligation, even if they aren’t really being productive.

Workaholics aren’t heroes. They don’t save the day, they just use it up. The real hero is already home because she figured out a faster way to get things done.

There’s an amusing short clip that goes with this quote that I thought I’d include. It captures the culture in so many professional environments perfectly:

(Watch it on YouTube instead if you’re not able to see it above)

Finally, Your Money or Your Life, one of my favorite books on personal finance, has this to offer:

Aren’t we killing ourselves–our health, our relationships, our sense of joy and wonder–for our jobs? We are sacrificing our lives for money–but it’s happening so slowly that we barely notice.

Even though the official work week has been pegged at forty hours for nearly half a century, many professionals believe they must work overtime and weekends to keep up…Opinion Research Corporation showed dramatic drops in job satisfaction among all age groups, in every occupation, in every social class, in every part of the country, despite the simultaneous increase of commitment to career in the mid-twenties to mid-forties age range. We are working more, but enjoying life less.

What’s Your Take?

How many hours per week do you currently work? Is it a function of necessity or desire? How do you feel about working overtime?

19 thoughts on “How Do You Feel About a 40-Hour Week?

  1. Like you, I spent years working crazy hours both in college and about the first 10 years of my career. It did get me ahead and promoted and I got great raises, but I also got very sick and unhealthy too. Now with children I call it quits at 5 on most nights. It’s not worth it and work still gets done. When you are a top performer, the bar just keeps getting raised until you can’t hit it anymore. Performing is rewarded with more work and at some point, you reach a point that’s not sustainable. Been there, done that.

    It’s fine to do periods of intense work short term but it’s just not productive long term.

    1. I would say that people working 40 hours today are more productive than people working 40 hours even 5 years ago, given advances in technology, the popularity of project and self-management, etc. Would you agree?

  2. When I was on salary, it was expected that you would work additional hours. It was sign that you were interested and motivated to excel in your job. Has something changed? As a teacher I am paid hourly , but I am expected to put in additional hours grading papers, or staying (unpaid) after school for my students.

    1. I would sincerely submit that something has changed. Above and beyond the generational phenomenon, I also think the recent economy has made employees feel like they are being taken advantage of when it comes to overtime.

      I hope others can chime in on whether they see it, too…

    2. Interesting that you are paid hourly to teach…. I am paid salary as a high school teacher and a 40 hour work week would be like a vacation!! I figured it out once and my hourly wage would be under $10.

      In addition to the things you mentioned above that you are expected to do off the clock, I would add attending department, faculty, team, and district wide meetings, parent meetings, IEP meetings, serving on school committee, attending graduation and its rehearsal, attending Open Houses, sponsoring a club, documenting who is failing, why they’re failing, the 10,000 ways you have tried to prevent them from failing, and your efforts to repeatedly contact the seventeen people on the planet you need to tell that they are failing, etc etc etc….

      In a district with a surplus of teaching applicants, my failure to do the above would likely result in my dismissal.

      “But you get a planning period”… to wrestle with a copy machine that insists upon breaking every 5th copy, attempt to placate angry parents/staff/administration via email, and (if there’s leftover time) enter some grades into the system
      “But you get summers off”… not really, with the exception of this summer I have worked every summer since I started teaching, because well, if you’re not working in the summer you are also not getting paid in the summer, and I need food and shelter to survive.
      (Sorry for the soap box)

  3. I’ve definitely seen overtime as the norm in the accounting profession. When I worked for one of the big 4 firms we were told the expectation was 55 chargeable hours (hours that could ultimately be billed to a client) a week, which didn’t include travel and admin time that wasn’t chargeable. Our staff typically put in 65-70 hours a week, most of the managers put in around 80. People left in droves and they honestly couldn’t figure out why!

    One interesting double-standard I’ve noticed in industry is that women with children are often given a pass on the overtime expectations, or at least more so than the men. Where I’m at now we had a supervisor who was demoted because he put in only 40 hours a week in the office although he was logging another 15-20 hours a week from home to allow him to pick his son up from preschool each day. The higher-ups said it was obvious that he wasn’t interested in advancing his career. During the same period we had a female supervisor with a young child put in similar hours at the office (and probably less than the man from home) who was actually promoted. It just seems like playing the family responsibilities card is frowned upon when the men do it but tolerated and even celebrated when the women do it.

    1. I agree on the gender bias, for better or worse.
      In a more general sense, I wonder where the ceiling lies…80, 90, 100, 120 hours? At what point are we going to just start dropping dead from exhaustion? “Only the sleep-deprived will survive” will be the corporate motto.

      1. I think the thing people need to recognize is that in a job you are trading hours for dollars, and that in many cases there are options out there where you can trade fewer hours for more dollars. Most people are too scared right now to see those options, but if the hours demanded get too ridiculous people will look for those opportunities out of desparation. Many will also find that if they just starting refusing to work crazy hours there will be little penalty. Unless your company is actively cutting staff your job is probably safe if you do good work, and the incremental difference the workaholic gets in pay over you is so not worth it.

      2. “the incremental difference the workaholic gets in pay over you is so not worth it.”
        I think the family question is also an important one. People who are single are probably (I would venture to guess) more willing to work long hours and move ahead (I know I was). But once you get married and have kids, you want to spend a lot more time with your family, and rightfully so. I guess this is why so many professionals are putting off marriage and kids until later and later in life–I know many in my own life that did exactly that.
        Given that, I guess the choice is–do you want to be a “career person” forever, or are you willing to sacrifice some or all progress for a family?

  4. It is important to try and balance as much as possible. If you can get by without working a crazy number of hours, then by all means you should. On the other hand, if it is work hard or don’t work, you have to make that choice.

    1. Yup, and for better or worse, a lot of people are making the choice to work hard. I feel that’s usually the right one, given the economic circumstances, but I worry about the effects once things get better.

  5. My husband works for a company in the Midwest where the minimum hours are 45. The CEO is a workaholic–thus everyone else is supposed to be as well. Since I am from the East Coast where everyone works tons of hours. I do not find it appalling. Perhaps I am desensitized to working crazy hours.

    1. The CEO/manager effect is an interesting one. I recently was a bystander to one such a manager being advised about his frustrations with the people he oversees. He was basically told to realize that a. not everyone is like him, and b. to lower his expectations.

  6. Though I’d love to work only 40 hours a week, I haven’t in years and I realize that for most of the work and industries I want to be involved in there’s no way 40 a week will be the norm.

  7. The most important thing isn’t the amount of time you spend at your job, but the amount you accomplish. It’s not about hours, it’s about output.

    I’m self-employed, so no one tells me how much time I ought to spend at my desk. I decide it myself based purely on the volume of things that need to happen before I can feel okay about tearing myself away from my computer.

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  9. I started my professional career after college working for a workaholic boss as well, 70-80 hr weeks not uncommmon. These days, 45-50 hours are more the norm.

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