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Is the 5-Hour Workday the Answer to All Our Problems?

Of all the theories that aim to engender better work-life balance, the five-hour workday is one of the most compelling.

In the classic song “9 to 5,” Dolly Parton sings,“They got you where they want you, there's a better life and you think about it, don't you?” 

We all think about it: less work, better pay, less work, more play. The song became both a huge hit and an anthem for those trapped in the daily grind.

The film of the same name turns that grind on its head to promote a healthier, happier workplace--what we call “work-life balance.”

What can employers do to foster “a better life” to their employees? What is a company’s responsibility for creating a happier corporate culture? Can big changes in the workday lead to even bigger improvements in productivity--and ultimately, greater profit margins?

Let’s explore one of the myriad theories that champion a better work-life balance for employees: the 5-Hour Workday.  

“9 to 5, what a way to make a living…”

The traditional 9am-5pm workday began in the 1920s with Ford Motor Company’s attempt to improve factory conditions, and became law in 1938, with the Fair Labor Standards Act. While the act only covered about one-fifth of the country’s labor pool, it banned oppressive child labor, set minimum hourly wage at 25 cents, and limited the maximum work week to 44 hours. This last standard has been perpetuated in hourly and salaried positions for more than 80 years, despite data demonstrating that the eight-hour workday does not contribute to effective or increased productivity.

Meanwhile, a study published in June of this year analyzed the five-hour workday in Iceland and found that reducing work hours maintained--and in some instances even increased--overall productivity.

“9 to 5, for service and devotion…”

In 2016, Stephan Aarstol published his book,The Five-Hour Workday, about an experiment his company, Tower Paddle Boards, conducted when they implemented an 8am-1pm workday without reducing salaries, in an effort to improve the company culture and foster healthier living for its employees.

Aarstol found that the hours employees worked did not correlate to the quantity or quality of their output, and the immediate results of the new policy included better profits, increased employee satisfaction, and an overall improvement in morale.

So what are the prospective benefits of a shortened workday?

  • Increased focus on tasks - Research has shown that employees are only productive for up to four hours of an eight-hour day, while a 2016 study estimated that the average worker is only productive for up to three hours per day.
  • Enhanced productivity - Employees focus more on high-value activities rather than meaningless tasks that take too much time.
  • Happier and healthier lifestyles - Employees can  take full advantage of the benefits of a shortened workday, like spending more time with family, exercising, pursuing hobbies, and enrolling in educational programs.
  • Overall improved workplace culture - Happier employees come to work with more positivity and energy that manifests throughout the entire organization.
  • Limited distractions - A shorter workday means shorter, more focused, less frequent meetings. Personal calls and texts were also less frequent during work hours.
  • Reduced absences - Employees are less likely to get  sick and miss work, and are able to schedule personal appointments and other obligations outside of working hours.
  • Improved retention - Tower Paddle Boards reported increased retention rates with the five-hour workday due to happier employees and a more positive working culture.

A few important components to keep in mind if you’re considering a shortened workday for your organization:

  • Employee compensation remains the  same - The focus is on productivity, not hours worked.
  • Employees are available only during working hours - the “always available” construct is abandoned. Employees are discouraged from taking work calls during off-hours, and work email on personal phones is discouraged.
  • Some days may be longer than others - An abbreviated workday is not a hard and fast rule; especially busy periods may require more hours, which should be communicated to employees from the outset.

“9 to 5, they got you where they want you…”

There are also potential drawbacks to the five-hour workday, as Aarstol noted in his book:

  • Though increasing focus can help boost productivity, some workers felt pressured to complete tasks within the confines of the new, tighter schedule. For example,  creating a spreadsheet, which formerly took 30 minutes, now had to be done in half the time. 
  • Diminished room for error generated resentment among some employees.
  • Spending less time at work with other employees can lead to less workplace bonding and a less collaborative workforce.
  • While the five-hour workday can be a great recruitment tool, more time was required to determine which candidates applied because they were a good fit versus because they were only interested in a shorter workday. 

These adverse effects led Tower Paddle Boats to eventually limit the five-hour workday to four summer months per year, attributing its early success in part to the “all-in”sentiment associated with most startups.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to improving work-life balance and combatting workplace trends that can fuel employee burnout, the five-hour workday is a compelling approach that’s likely to gain more traction in the coming decades.


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