Upgrade to Pro — share decks privately, control downloads, hide ads and more …

The history of the 40 hour week

The history of the 40 hour week

Presented to the Mental Health in Tech meetup:


Tom Isaacson

March 01, 2018


  1. The history of the 40 hour week Tom Isaacson @parsley72

  2. None
  3. Tolpuddle, Dorset

  4. None
  5. In the year 1831-32, there was a general movement of

    the working classes for an increase of wages, and the labouring men in the parish where I lived gathered together, and met their employers, to ask them for an advance of wages, and they came to a mutual agreement, the masters in Tolpuddle promising to give the men as much for their labour as the other masters in the district. The whole of the men then went to work, and the time that was spent in this affair did not exceed two hours. No language of intimidation or threatening was used on the occasion. Shortly after we learnt that, in almost every place around us, the masters were giving their men money, or money's worth to the amount of ten shillings a week - we expected to be entitled to as much - but no, nine shillings must be our portion. After some months we were reduced to eight shillings per week. This caused great dissatisfaction, and all the labouring men in the village, with the exception of two or three invalids, made application to a neighbouring magistrate... I was one nominated to appear, and when there we were told that we must work for whatever our employers thought fit to give us, as there was no law to compel masters to give any fixed sum of money to their servants. In vain we remonstrated that an agreement was made... From this time we were reduced to seven shillings per week, and shortly after our employers told us they must lower us to six shillings per week. George Loveless
  6. Trial and Transportation In March 1834, after a two-day trial,

    the six men were sentenced by the 12-man jury to seven years’ transportation to New South Wales, Australia. This was the maximum sentence that they could have received. The judge claimed that the safety of the country was at stake: they were being made an example of. • Public outcry spread. The Tolpuddle men became popular heroes, and protest at their harsh punishment grew. • A huge demonstration took place in April 1834 in London and petitions were presented to parliament. • In March 1836, public pressure forced the government, and the new home secretary, Lord John Russell (who went on to become prime minister), to rescind the sentences. • Three years after being sentenced, the six men returned to England, and in March 1836, all received a full and free pardon.
  7. None
  8. “The traditional summer hours for many ordinary labourers in southern

    English counties had been from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with breaks for meals (customarily half an hour for 'breakfast' at mid-morning and an hour for the midday meal). These hours were still found in the 1860s in Northamptonshire, being normal on the estate of Lord Exeter; winter hours were during daylight only.” Thirsk, Joan, ed. The Agrarian history of England and Wales. Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  9. None
  10. “There are twenty-four hours per day given us: eight of

    these should be for work, eight for sleep, and the remaining eight for recreation and in which for men to do what little things they want for themselves.” Samuel Duncan Parnell
  11. None
  12. None
  13. Lessons learned “That output does not rise or fall in

    direct proportion to the number of hours worked is a lesson that seemingly has to be relearned each generation. In 1848, the English parliament passed the ten-hours law and total output per-worker, per-day increased. In the 1890s employers experimented widely with the eight hour day and repeatedly found that total output per-worker increased. In the first decades of the 20th century, Frederick W. Taylor, the originator of "scientific management" prescribed reduced work times and attained remarkable increases in per-worker output.” Tom Walker of the Work Less Institute, “The Prosperity Covenant”
  14. • In 1914 Henry Ford famously took the radical step

    of doubling his workers’ pay, and cut shifts in Ford plants from nine hours to eight. • The National Association of Manufacturers criticized him bitterly for this — though many of his competitors climbed on board in the next few years when they saw how Ford’s business boomed as a result. • In 1937, the 40-hour week was enshrined nationwide in the US as part of the New Deal. By that point, there were a solid five decades of industrial research that proved, beyond a doubt, that if you wanted to keep your workers bright, healthy, productive, safe, and efficient over a sustained stretch of time, you kept them to no more than 40 hours a week and eight hours a day.
  15. What about Knowledge Workers? As more workers moved into white-collar

    jobs employers at first assumed that the limits that applied to industrial workers probably didn’t apply to knowledge workers. Everybody knew that eight hours a day was pretty much the limit for a guy swinging a hammer or a shovel; but those grey-flannel guys are just sitting at desks. We’re paying them more; shouldn’t we be able to ask more of them?
  16. Sorry, no • Research shows that knowledge workers actually have

    fewer good hours in a day than manual labourers do — on average, about six hours, as opposed to eight. • Think about your typical work day. Odds are good that you probably turn out five or six good, productive hours of hard mental work; and then spend the other two or three hours on the job in meetings, answering e-mail, making phone calls, and so on. You can stay longer if your boss asks; but after six hours, all he's really got left is a butt in a chair. Your brain has already clocked out and gone home.
  17. It gets worse • Knowledge workers are also very sensitive

    to even minor sleep loss. • Research by the US military has shown that losing just one hour of sleep per night for a week will cause a level of cognitive degradation equivalent to a .10 blood alcohol level. • Most people who’ve fallen into this state typically have no idea of just how impaired they are. It’s only when you look at the dramatically lower quality of their output that it shows up.
  18. It gets much worse • Potential for catastrophic failure can

    be every bit as high for knowledge workers as it is for labourers. The follow-up investigations on the Exxon Valdez disaster and the Challenger explosion both found that severely overworked, overtired decision-makers played significant roles in bringing about these disasters. • Huge body of research on life-threatening errors made by exhausted medical residents. • Research by the US military on the catastrophic effects of fatigue on the target discrimination abilities of artillery operators – “Friendly fire” or “Blue on Blue”.
  19. None
  20. The Overtime Exception There’s one exception to this rule: •

    Research shows you can get short-term gains by going to 60 or 70- hour weeks very briefly - for example, pushing extra hard for a few weeks to meet a critical production deadline. • However, there are a few serious caveats attached to this which used to be well-known, but have mostly been forgotten.
  21. Caveat #1 • Increasing a team’s hours in the office

    by 50 percent (from 40 to 60 hours) does not result in 50 percent more output. • Assumption is there will be a direct one-to-one correlation between extra hours and extra output. • Numbers typically closer to 25-30 percent more work in 50 percent more time. • By the eighth hour of the day, people's best work is usually already behind them (typically turned in between hours 2 and 6). • In Hour 9, as fatigue sets in, they're only going to deliver a fraction of their usual capacity. • With every extra hour beyond that, the workers’ productivity level continues to drop. • Around 10 or 12 hours they hit full exhaustion.
  22. Caveat #2 • Overtime is only effective over very short

    sprints. • Daily productivity starts falling off in the second week, and declines rapidly with every successive week as burnout sets in. • 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. • Overworked software teams can 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.
  23. Going backwards A Business Roundtable study found that after just

    eight 60-hour weeks, the fall-off in productivity is so marked that the average team would have actually gotten just as much done and been better off if they’d just stuck to a 40-hour week all along. And at 70- or 80-hour weeks, the fall-off happens even faster: at 80 hours, the break-even point is reached in just three weeks.
  24. Recovery time These death marches take a longer-term productivity toll

    as well. Once the crisis has passed and that 60-hour-a-week team gets to go back to its regular 40, it can take several more weeks before the burnout begins to lift enough for them to resume their typical productivity level. So, for a while, you’ll get significantly less than a full 40 out of them.
  25. Wise managers • Avoid requiring overtime crunches, because they're acutely

    aware of the serious longer-term productivity hit that inevitably follows. • Keep the crunches as short as possible when they are necessary. • Give their teams a few days off - one to two comp days per overtime week worked is about right - at the end of a hard sprint. This downtime enables them recuperate more quickly and completely. • It's much more productive to have them gone for the next week - and then back on the job, rested and ready to work - than have them at their workstations but too fried to get anything useful done for the next month.
  26. Maybe 40 hours is too much? Some call for 4

    or even 3 day work weeks: • Reduce unemployment and underemployment. • Tackle health conditions ranging from mental distress to high blood pressure. • Increase productivity. • Help the environment. • Improve family lives. • Encourage men to do more household tasks. • Make people happier.
  27. Summary • Working 8 hour days / 40 hour weeks

    isn’t an arbitrary limit, it’s backed by years of research and evidence. • Crunch time can work, but only for short periods and you pay for it afterwards.
  28. Recommended reading • “Why We Have to Go Back to

    a 40-Hour Work Week to Keep Our Sanity” by Sara Robinson • https://www.alternet.org/story/154518/why_we_have_to_go_back_to_a_40 -hour_work_week_to_keep_our_sanity • “Why Crunch Modes Doesn't Work: Six Lessons” by Evan Robinson • https://www.igda.org/why-crunch-modes-doesnt-work-six-lessons • “We should all be working a four-day week. Here’s why” by Owen Jones • https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/16/working-four- day-week-hours-labour