Why the 9-to-5 Day Is So Tough on Creative Workers

"Knowledge workers" tend to be more unfocused in both the early morning and mid-afternoon. Why force them to work when they're least productive?
Reuters

Today, workers are putting in increasingly more hours—so much so that the 40-hour week has become a relic of the past. But pushing employees to clock up those extra hours is bad for their well-being and detrimental to your company.

When you sleep is more important than the number of hours you sleep, a recent study found. What’s more, getting too little sleep might not be ideal, but waking up while it’s still dark is worse. (As we’ve pointed out before, turning up to the office feeling sleepy is like showing up to work drunk.)

In a recent article for the New Yorker, neuroscientist Kenneth Wright said that “cognition is best several hours prior to habitual sleep time, and worst near habitual wake time”—which suggests that you do your best work later in the day, not first thing in the morning. Your consciousness kicks in almost immediately after waking up, but it can take up to four hours for your mind to crank itself up to full awareness and alertness—and in that time, you won’t make good decisions.

So how do employers accommodate this?

A shorter workday works particularly well for knowledge workers—people in creative or professional jobs—who can work productively for about six hours a day, compared to the eight hours manual laborers can churn out, according to Salon. Unlike machines, humans operate on a cyclical basis, which means our energy and motivation fluctuate in peaks and troughs. Cognitive workers tend to be more focused in the late morning, getting another energy boost in the late afternoon when lung efficiency peaks.

It’s been about a century since the economist John Maynard Keynes first touted the six-hour workday, predicting that by 2030 only extreme workaholics would work more than 15 hours a week. It was around the same time that Ford cemented the 40-hour workweek as a labor norm, but in 1930, Kellogg’s introduced the six-hour workday, which proved to be immensely popular with staff members and lasted until 1985.

Another benefit of the shorter workday, Kellogg’s discovered, was that employees were happy to work less when they were paid 12.5% more per hour, meaning the company was able to offer more jobs. Maybe the six-hour workday could be a solution to the US’s current minimum wage debate.

Presented by

Lauren Davidson is a journalist based in New York. She has written for the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London.

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