Effective August 2022, full-time employees' weekly average working hours in the UK was 36.5 hours. For comparison, the lowest recorded was 30.3 in 2020 during the pandemic, and the highest was 38.8 in 1997. This data uses a five-day workweek as a fact, but how did we get here?
In short, it is a cultural norm. It is an easy trap to think of the five-day workweek as eternal. But history shows context, design, and technology determine establishing working patterns. The industrial revolution, religious conviction, and trade union activities were all influencing factors in the early 1900s.
I am a confessed history hound. I find the subject highly instructive, illuminating, and insightful to how people have agreed to live and work throughout history. To cite some crucial moments from the US and UK.
- In 1926, Henry Ford of Ford Motors established 40 over a five-day workweek as the norm for his US factory workers.
- In 1930, John Maynard Keynes, the UK economist, predicted technology may improve productivity to the point people could work 15 hours a week.
- In 1932, the US officially recognised five-day workweeks to counter mass unemployment caused by the Great Depression.
- In 1933, John Boot of Boots Pharmacy made weekends an official policy for his UK employees.
Additionally, data from modern anthropology and archaeology draws a varied picture of how working times fluctuate.
- Hunter-gatherer in Stone Age Europe: 3-5hrs a day, 365d/yr
- Labourer in ancient Egypt: 8hrs a day, 131d/yr
- Farm worker in ancient Israel: 8hrs a day, 296d/yr
- Artisan in imperial Rome: 6hrs a day, 185d/yr
- Peasant in medieval England: 8hrs a day, 150d/yr
- Artisan in the 14th-century Aztec Empire: 9hrs a day, 274d/yr
- Labourer in 17th-century France: 10hrs a day, 185d/yr
- Unskilled worker in mid 18th-century England: 11hrs a day, 208d/yr
- Factory worker in mid 19th-century England: 16hrs a day, 311d/yr
- Factory worker in mid 20th-century America: 8hrs a day, 243d/yr
- Tech worker in early 21st-century China: 10hrs a day, 297d/yr
- Office worker in early 21st-century Netherlands: 5.8hrs a day, 234d/yr
- Office worker in early 21st-century America: 6.9hrs a day, 239d/yr
- WFH during the pandemic in the US or UK: 11hrs a day, 239d/yr
If we go even further back, the idea of seven days being one week can be traced 4,000 years ago to the ancient Babylonians. They believed seven planets were in our solar system and thus viewed the number seven as frightening. This idea found its way through the Middle East to Europe and eventually structured time as recognised today.
- One year = 365 1/4 days
- One day = 24 hours
- One hour = 60 minutes
- One minute = 60 seconds
In the wake of the pandemic, we continue to question what constitutes a workweek. In June 2022, Autonomy, a think tank, 4 Day Week Global, a campaign group, and various university researchers spearheaded a four-day week trial. The model being trialled is 100:80:100, that is, pay:hours:output. It involves 70 companies and more than 3,300 UK workers.
The argument is technological advances demonstrated during the pandemic mark a fundamental shift in how work can be today. Early positives include environmental benefits, cost-savings, happier employees, fewer absences, increased productivity levels, and better recruitment and retention. Early negatives: not all industries can participate, unused labour, longer hours, and work-related stress.
The trial marks an exciting milestone in balancing the 'work versus life' question. I hope the wave of interest continues, more data is collected to analyse, and employers research sustainable implementation strategies.