Less Work is Better Work? Maybe for Some.

Until recently, I was working a 6-day week, and the idea of a weekend was beyond my imagination. Due to logistical changes, my current workweek is the Monday-to-Friday routine. Being a researcher, this marked change in my schedule afforded a simple experiment where I could observe my working habits. And I can admit that the tasks I was finishing every Saturday were now compressed to being completed within the stipulated timeframe of the week, permitting me the joy of shutting down my laptop on Friday. So, I never really had to work Saturdays then?

The duration of the working week and the working day has been under contention since the 1900s, and more recently in the 2010s given the alteration in kinds of work, as well as the workers themselves. Recent research has suggested that shortening the working day (from 8 hours to 6 hours) or even adopting a 4-day workweek benefits productivity, reduces absenteeism, and increases overall welfare for employees and employers alike. All this, without a reduction in pay or in the profit accrued to the company. Further, it reduces unemployment, frees up time for leisure, improves work-life balance, and is ecologically feasible. This seems like a win-win then. Other research has suggested that reducing the time spent in work-related activities can be more beneficial for employees over the age of 40. On the other hand, not working when others are can make one feel more stress, more unproductive, guilty, and lead to delays in coordination with others. Therefore, any model of changing work times needs to be adopted across the board, given the hyperconnectivity and interdependence in industry today. Such findings beg the question: is how well we work related to how much we work?

The 24-hour period of a weekday comprises of sleep, work, and rest. The proportions of these components vary across age, gender, and even nation. The 6–12 hour workday comprises of productive and unproductive activities (of which the former can be enhanced using time management methods, like the Pomodoro technique). The need to work is fundamental to the human condition. Defining what work comprises of is important in this context: whether work is everything you do at office, at home, on your phone, while meeting people, and the like. Distributing time across work and leisure may not be as clear-cut as it was in the past. Currently, if our professional emails are synced to our phones, one may unintentionally “work” over the weekend, blurring the line between workweek and weekend. Is this acceptable and would it be less likely to occur if the length of the workweek was reduced? To my knowledge, empirical research is yet to answer such questions.

Typically, the amount of work one has expands (or contracts) within the duration one has to complete it. This is a reflection of productivity, and unless you are sufficiently motivated to get done with a task, you can keep redoing and refining it until you need to meet an internal or external deadline. In this context, Person A (working 40 hours/week) and Person B (working 30 hours/week) may complete the same amount of work, if the work expanded for the former and contracted for the latter. Unless one keeps generating new tasks compulsively and creating new work deadlines for themselves proactively, the majority of worker bees (responsible to their supervisors) may be able to adapt to new work timelines. For instance, consider giving a child 10 homework problems, and 2 hours to complete the task; if the child completes this in an hour, it implies the child is productive, and can be given the extra hour to play, right? However, if you give this child 10 more problems in the second hour, he/she is likely to feel cheated. The next time you given them 10 problems in two hours, they’ll finish just those 10 problems, expanding the work to fit the time. Thus, appraising the productivity of workers to prevent them from feeling cheated and to prevent them from unnecessarily expanding time is likely to be beneficial to all stakeholders.

Let’s consider the other possibility: that individuals may not know what to do with the freed-up time. Some individuals may argue that in the absence of work, they would tend to get bored (and boredom itself is worthy of an independent blog entry). But when the establishment asks such individuals to stop working “prematurely” in the day or week, if they do not know what to do with the free time, they may drive themselves, and others, up the wall. Individuals who are uncomfortable with leisure, boredom, or engaging in relatively unproductive activities may not prefer the arrangement where they work for fewer hours or days. Research has found that such preferences may be related with dominant personality traits, such as the Big Five. For instance, would you classify yourself as a workaholic? As lazy? As sufficiently productive?

Optimal working hours, working days, and quality of work are interrelated, and the focus is currently on how much one is working, on the basis of which conclusions are drawn about productivity. However, variations across individual variables (e.g., likability of work, self-employment, workaholism, conscientiousness) would need to be accounted for, as a one-size-fits-all model is unlikely to be useful. That said, more work is better for some and worse for others. I’m likely to fall in the former grouping (after all, this entry was drafted over the weekend!).

Hansika Kapoor