In today’s day and age, the 9 to 5 workday is quickly becoming obsolete, largely thanks to technology. The ability to work from anywhere has its downsides—most notably, the rise of the “workcation”—but the major upside is that it enables you to get the job done without being shacked to a fluorescently lit cubicle. This is definitely a good thing, given that studies have shown that working outside the confines of an office space makes people happier and has some major health benefits.
Studies have also shown that people who are self-employed tend to be more satisfied with their lives in spite of all of the anxiety of not having a set salary, mostly thanks to the flexibility of their schedules. If you’ve got a job that mandates numerous interactions with other people, then maintaining a set schedule makes sense, as you need to set meetings at a mutually-convenient hour. But if you’re evaluated predominantly on the basis of your output, how quickly and competently you complete a project is much more significant than when you do it and whether it takes you eight hours or four. In those cases, a 9 to 5 schedule doesn’t really make sense, and it mostly just encourages employees to lag on their workload, as there’s no apparent reward in place for getting something done sooner.
So where did the old 9 to 5 workday even come from? Why wasn’t it 7 to 3, or 10 to 6?
Many people know that the 9 to 5 workday was actually introduced by the Ford Motor Company back in the 1920s, and became standardized by the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938 as a way of trying to curb the exploitation of factory workers. But not many people know the history behind why we act like it’s logical to pay people based on the amount of time they spend in the office as opposed the actual amount of work they produce.
In fact, the concept of billable hours came about in the 1950s in order to boost the salaries of lawyers, whose pay grade was failing to match those of doctors. In 1958, an ABA article argued that, because attorneys were paid a fixed fee for their services, they weren’t getting enough money in exchange for all the time they spent working with clients. The concept of billable hours arose as a way of enabling lawyers to make money from every minute they spent working, and by the 1970s, the approach had become the norm.
Law firms quickly began to realize that they could make a lot more money by making their employees work longer hours. In 1958, lawyers were expected to work around 1300 hours a year, which only translated to about 27 hours per week. Today, many of the quotas are as high as 2200 hours a year, which translates to about 45 hours a week.
This time-is-money approach quickly caught fire with other industries, which is why we still live in a world in which how we evaluate an employee largely on how much time they spend sitting at their desks. The problem, of course, is that in salaried positions, you’re not actually paid for the amount of time you spend working. So employees feel pressured to stay late just to show their bosses that they’re committed to their jobs.
In that sense, the irony of the modern workday is that it now contradicts its original purpose, which was to eradicate the exploitation of workers.
Many of my friends come into the office at 9 am and don’t leave until late into the evening because they want to impress their boss, and to answer any emails their employer sends regardless of whether or not it comes in during work hours, resulting in a new generation of people who feel somewhat disgruntled, overworked, and underpaid.
There are actions that states are taking in order to limit this concerning trend. Back in March, New York City introduced a bill that would actually make it illegal for businesses to contact employees outside of office hours.
“There’s a lot of New Yorkers out there that don’t know when their work day begins or when their work day ends, because we’re all so tied to our phones,” Rafel Espinal, the Brooklyn council member who introduced the bill, told WCBS. “You can still work, you can still talk to your boss, but this just is saying that, when you feel like you’ve hit your boiling point and you can’t do it anymore, you’re able to disconnect and decompress for a while.”
Additionally, other countries are experimenting with encouraging their employees to get their work done faster in order to have more free time. In July, a New Zealand firm tried reducing the work week of their employees from 40 hours a week to 32, and found that the new schedule made their employees more productive and motivated.
“Supervisors said staff were more creative, their attendance was better, they were on time, and they didn’t leave early or take long breaks,” Jarrod Haar, a human resources professor at Auckland University of Technology told The New York Times. “Their actual job performance didn’t change when doing it over four days instead of five.”.
Sweden has also been experimenting with implementing shorter work days with great results. And a recent study found that while 40 percent of American adults work 50 hours or more a week, they generally only spend about 3 hours a day doing actual work, leading researchers to conclude that “cutting hours could improve productivity in the US as long as companies can give up the 8-hour mentality.”
If you’re an employer, it’s worth seriously reconsidering whether or not evaluating your employee based on how much time they spend at their desks is actually beneficial to your company’s financial growth. And if you’re an employee, it could be worth discussing these facts with your employer in order to boost your productivity. And for more scientific research on how the modern workday affects our mental health, check out Why You Should Always Take All Of Your Vacation Days.