I’d Work Outside the Home If a 40-Hour Work Week Actually Existed

A mom works from home while holding her baby in one hand and a phone in the other.
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Before I had children, I rarely left the office before 6 PM. Long hours were the norm and those few precious days when I strolled out the door before sunset were glorious, indeed. My workload often felt exhausting and it played a major role in my decision to become a freelancer after my second child was born.

The thing is, for all the talk of work-life balance initiatives, I think I could have handled two kids and a 9-to-5 job just fine without much in the way of special accommodations … if my job had actually been 9-to-5.

I’m far from the only one to feel this way. A New York Times report in 2015 explained that some researchers now argue that the growing hours worked by both men and women — not a lack of family-friendly policies — is the reason we’re seeing so few women reach the upper echelons of the corporate world.

“When women cut back at work to cope with long hours, they end up stunting their careers,” The Times reported. “And men aren’t necessarily happy to be expected to work extreme hours, either.”

In other words, if it was the norm for both genders to work shorter (read: more humane) hours in the first place, women wouldn’t have to “cut back” to the detriment of their careers and men would be happier, too. Perhaps men who no longer felt pressured to work long hours could more successfully co-parent with their wives, improving their relationships with their children and giving those women more time to pursue their career ambitions. (A study cited in Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 bestseller Lean In found that when fathers work 50 hours a week or more, their wives are 44 percent more likely to quit their jobs.)

And what about people without kids? I bet they’d like the chance to do exciting things like eat dinner while not sitting in front of their computers and take vacations without being chained to their smartphones, too.

The Times article notes that “highly skilled, highly paid” fields such as law, finance, consulting, and accounting are especially vulnerable to the pressure of a “round-the-clock work culture.” As any reporter can tell you, that culture is alive and well in the media, too — except we’re not paid nearly as well.


Overall, working more than 40 hours a week is pretty common. A 2014 survey by Gallup found that half of salaried workers who responded put in 50 or more hours a week at their jobs. The average hours worked by all salaried employees, according to the survey, was 49.

There’s little joy in making a living when you can’t invest time in actually living.
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So what’s the better way? How do we get back to that long-ago ideal of eight hours a day, five days a week? Can companies hire more staff and help decrease individual employee workloads? Can CEOs encourage workers to take on smaller workloads and reassure them that they won’t be penalized for it? Can we make like Germany and consider banning late-night work emails? Can some amazing, benevolent business with a successful 40-hour work week model and oodles of profits share its secrets with the world? (Pretty please?)

I don’t know. I’m just tossing out ideas here and hoping that one of them sticks, though I’m also uncomfortably aware of how the emphasis on bottom lines over everything else will likely torpedo my shorter-hour fantasies. Until someone presents concrete evidence that expecting employees to put in long hours harms — rather than helps — profits, few companies will rush to reduce employee workloads.

That’s truly a pity, because there’s little joy in making a living when you can’t invest time in actually living.

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