40 hours, 40 years

by Katrina on March 27, 2012

The number 40 has been on my mind a lot lately.

For one thing, I’m turning 40 this week. You would think I’d have had ample time to prepare for this milestone, but somehow it snuck up on me like the Norwegian rat that once scampered across my kitchen floor at 6 o’clock in the morning. Ew! How did he get in here?

The other reason I’m thinking about 40 is this Salon story my cousin sent me (Thanks, Logan!) called “Bring Back the 40 Hour Work Week.” It describes research that proves long hours “kill profits, productivity, and employees.”

Since your boss probably hasn’t read the story, and chances are you’re still stuck, like so many Americans, working 50 or 60 hours a week, and since that leaves you very little time to read anything except this blog, I will share the highlights here:

  • Most people assume that if you increase your hours by, say, 50%, you will get 50% more work done. Not true.
  • Study after study shows that for industrial workers, productivity dramatically decreases after 8 hours a day.
  • Knowledge workers (people like me and most of my friends) have only 6 good hours of productivity a day. After that, we are cooked noodles.
  • Studies also show that when companies reduce workers’ hours back down to 40 per week, their businesses become “significantly more productive and profitable.”

Sometimes there are short-term gains when people work 60 or 70 hours a week. However, the risk of burnout begins after one week:

Without adequate rest, recreation, nutrition and time off to just be, people get dull and stupid. They can’t focus. They spend more time answering e-mail and goofing off than they do working. They make mistakes that they’d never make if they were rested; and fixing those mistakes takes longer because they’re fried…[Some software teams] descend into a negative-progress mode, where they are actually losing ground week over week because they’re so mentally exhausted that they’re making more errors than they can fix.

Despite 150 years of research proving that working long hours is bad for everyone, Americans now work some of the longest hours of any country in the industrialized world. Shouldn’t we know better?

The author blames this on a culture problem created by a bunch of geeky, anti-social, workaholic software programmers from Silicon Valley who were upheld for their “passion” and made not working on the weekend seemed terribly old-fashioned.

Personally, I found that trying to work the minimum 40 hours when I was in that sleep-deprived first year of motherhood was impossible. And now that I’m sleeping through the night again, 40 hours is manageable, but I vastly prefer 30 or less. (Of course, that goes for my age as well.)

What’s your experience with working long hours? How many “good” hours do you have, before you are (as my friend Joan would say) “working stupid”?

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }


Working stupid starts for me early in the afternoon. (Sometimes, if I’m really honest, I walk in stupid b/c I’d rather be sleeping). I doubt I am productive for four full hours a day (I must mention, though, that I am disenchanted w/my job, so that plays a role for sure). The longer I work, the harder it gets to be productive, and the crankier I get. I work 40 hours now but we’re offered a flexible schedule with a regular day off (meaning those 40 hours are compressed into nine days instead of 10, with one day off). I should have never left that law firm that had us working 35 hr work weeks, huh?



“Working stupid starts for me early in the afternoon.”

Same here! I’m great in the morning, start to lose it around 1 or 2pm, I’m wiped by 3…But if I take a break at lunch and work out, I get a whole second wind in the afternoon.



It’s 1:30 pm and I’m tired and brain-fried. There is no excuse… my children are grown, my baby is 17 for pete’s sake. Then again, my 20 year old and my 11 month old grandson is in the house as well. When exactly do I get to be *just* a working woman again?



The added commute times really add to the “work” hours too. For me it’s the early wake up. I would be so much more productive if I was able to be at work later. It’s my bio-rythm to sleep deep at 6-7:30 AM no matter what time I go to sleep. Also, nap times would be a real treat. This post is relevant to me because I took a vacation recently and am totally recharged. I’m much more focused at work! This post is so true. I’m all for as standard 30-35 hour work week.



I find that adrenaline forces me to concentrate. So, if something is due, I seem to pull it together no matter how long I have been working. Without that, I do get distracted, but I question if I have A.D.D., or if everyone is like this. I honestly don’t know, because most people will not confess to much internet surfing, personal calls, etc.

But I agree that generally, something has to give when the hours increase. I am currently a government attorney, and when I have to work very long hours, for an impending trial, for instance, when I have a lot of overnight travel, or when I used to bill long hours in private practice, I tend to start making mistakes. For instance, I once left a backpack full of materials….at my opposing counsel’s office. I had been doing a document inspection, and just left it there. They could have looked through the whole thing and found all sorts of my notes, etc. not to mention personal items. Another time, I left an entire, huge “catalog” case–far larger than a briefcase–at the courthouse clerk’s office–in another city. (I had been traveling.) As a baby attorney, and this was more than 10 years ago, I had billed so much that I was a zombie, and I vividly recall the terror of realizing that I had filed a motion in bankruptcy motion where I complained of discovery requests 3,4,7, 11, 17, 19 and 20 in the title of a motion (because I thought the judge would be more sympathetic to the motion, and more likely to read the whole thing, if the title indicated I only had a problem with just a few of the total, as the judge was notorious for hating discovery disputes), but then in the body of the motion I complained of 3, 4, 5, 9, 17, 18, and 19. The opposing counsel called me up and was like, “WTF? Which ones do you actually have problems with?” Flustered and exhausted, I tried to respond with as much bravado I could muster: “If it’s in there anywhere, you can assume we have a problem with it.” Today, due to incidents like that, I have more of a quality control check mentally that operates despite my exhaustion, but that was at the very beginning and I was billing about 240 hours a month. Oh, and let’s not forget the time I crashed a car after a deposition, probably in part due to exhaustion. Ran right into the person in front of me. This elderly couple had just bought a brand new Toyota Avalon and were devastated. They kept repeating, “We just bought this…we just bought this.” I felt terrible.



Sheesh! I work 18 hours a week and I feel like I can barely manage!



I have to admit, I am definitely happy to not have to earn my money in the U.S., where a 40 work week is not considered standard practice. Respect to all you working mothers out there!

When I worked in Denmark, the company decided to go from 40 to 37 hours (it was during recession, and a measure to weigh against no bonus/no increase in salary). From what I saw, the three hours less a week did not impact the business at all. On the contrary, the mood in the office was better, meetings were optimized to spend less time away from the desk.
In China, where we recently lived, people easily spend 12 hours at work. But when you walked past, there was YoKou (chin. Youtube), or Solitaire on the screen,…or they would just sleep on their desk. Being at work def. doesn’t mean that you are WORKING all the time.
Now I am living in a small city in France and the employees are even coming home in the middle of the day to have lunch with their families. How crazy is that? I think it def. leaves you recharged if you leave the office for an hour, go work-out, get lunch outside, or see your family (if you do it like the French).
I love the concept of flexible hours, as I am just a horrible person to speak to in the morning. So, I’d rather come in later, and stay later, or leave and spend another hour at home in the evenings (working globally, you need to schedule meetings at odd hours anyways).



Happy Birthday!



Our office policy is a 37.5 hour work week, although I know that many people are working many more hours than that. We all talk about how great it would be, and how we really should take a break at lunch time, and chastise people when they’re caught on-line working at home in the evenings or weekends. But still, people are driven to work too much, always claiming that there is too much to do.

I feel guilty for not working the extra hours, but I also can’t figure out how that is possible. After finally getting out of the house by 8 am, driving for nearly an hour in rush traffic, I can barely fit in my needed 7.5 hours before I have to leave to drive home in order to meet the children and start dinner etc. By the time the kids have gone to bed and I’ve put in my mom-jobs at home, I’m too exhausted to think about logging in to do work from home. I guess, my family life is kind of forcing me to stick to the 40 hour work week. It’s crazy and stressful enough as it is!


Jane Chelliah

I think there is a certain romance attached to long working hours because of the banking industry which makes a lot of money from working around the clock (global hours). Bankers justify their high earnings by using this as a reason. However, it is the nature of their work and is not one with most other jobs.



I have about 6 hours that are really productive on most days. After that my mind is somewhere else. Daydreaming about being with my kids more, what to make for dinner and beginning to worry how I’m going to accomplish everything at home that needs to be done before I go to sleep…



Firstly I love your blog and love this dialog.

I turned 40 a few months ago and like you it snuck up on me. I work in Corporate Finance and I work between 50 and 60 hours a week. I have 18 month old twins and I have been back to full time (read=overtime) work since they were 5 months old while a nanny attends to most of my children’s needs!

I have burnt out so much and have really ran myself haggard to the ground physically, emotionally and mentally that I finally recently just resigned after 25 years of working fulltime with no break. These are my last 2 weeks at work. I absolutely cannot take the chaos my life has become trying to attend to my home and family while maintaing the work hours. My company has turned the other cheek. They aren’t interested in this conversation. So much for “work life balance” that they talk about so much.

I work with 25 year olds with no spouses, no children and no houses they are responsible for that are willing to put in the 70 hours a week so when I leave chances are a 25 year old slave will fill my shoes (though not too well I might add).

40 hours a week? I have never heard of it. Not in the NY area not in the Corporate world.



OMG! If only a 40-hr workweek could be legislated, and paid OT for everyone. I become a vegetable on less than 8 hrs of sleep per night and I never get 8 hrs of sleep per night. In fact, this is the first time in my life I have posted on a blog because I don’t have time for reading, Facebook, personal e-mail, or TV. I work about 47 – 55 hrs per week plus a 10 hours per week of commuting. Like some of the other moms here I have a house to take care of and a kid who needs attention. I have a wonderful husband who, thankfully, cooks. If not we would just have to graze. I left my previous job because…and I am not exaggerating at all here…my boss worked 22 hours a day. She and her boss would have meetings at 3am. The entire culture was like that in our division. If you left the office before 8pm you were a total slacker. And no one was paid overtime. My current job is much better but the 10-hr commute is killing me and I just want to win the lottery so I can retire and go to bed and just sleep for a couple of months. By then I might be recovered enough to be a productive citizen again.


kristen from motherload

I used to consistently work 40+ hours a week (and travel a fair bit), but since having kids I’ve decided to not do that–and have been lucky that I’ve been able to make that decision.

The problem is that full-time is often 40+ hours, and a part-time corporate job (where you don’t get benefits) still often ends up turning into full time work that you’re just not paid sufficiently for. People often still schedule you for mandatory meetings on your off day, and you’re still often required to “stay connected” via email when your “non-working” days. All those hours add up–and saying “no no no” to all the myriad requests makes you out to be A) grumpy, B) not be a team player–or C) someone who doesn’t care about the work.

I’ve just tried to keep a balance by going on a field trip with my kids when the change comes up–since I know I’ve already put in the hours.

If we don’t monitor and try to control our work time, no one else will.

Part-time work in many ways requires a lot more balancing–since it also means I’m the primary caregiver to my kids–but it’s important to me to strive to make it work. No one said this working mother thing would be easy.


kristen from motherload

And happy birthday! The 40s are awesome. 🙂


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