Study: Less Time at the Office Doesn't Make People Happier

Shortening the workweek didn't improve people's job or life satisfaction.
(Ol.v!er [H2vPk]/flickr)

Problem: Work is making you miserable. Your boss is a mean little man with a clip-on tie and a rub-on tan and he’s got you running round the office like a dog around a track.  Your coworkers unironically say things like “hump day” and “working hard, or hardly working?” If you could just spend a few less hours every week staring at the grey, sad walls of your cubicle and a few more hours with the people you love, or finally taking tap-dancing lessons, you’d be happy.

In the Journal of Happiness Studies, Robert Rudolf of Korea University in Seoul looked at the effects of the Korean Five-Day Working Reform, when South Korea instituted a policy to remove Saturdays from the workweek and reduce working hours from 44 to 40 a week.

Methodology: The Five-Day Working Policy was implemented in 2004—this study analyzes data from the annual Korean Labor and Income Panel Study for 1998 to 2008, on the job satisfaction and life satisfaction of workers and their families. Before 2004, most people who worked were at their jobs 41 or more hours a week, with significant numbers working more than 60 hours a week. After 2004, most people were working between 41 and 50 hours a week—the number working more than 60 hours a week reduced by 4.8 percent for women and by 7.9 percent for men.

Rudolf also takes into account the effect of gender roles on happiness. In South Korea, women often voluntarily stay home from work, and men are still expected to be the main breadwinners, so women tend to be happier when not working at all than men are.

Results: The Korean Five-Day Working Reform resulted in greater working hours satisfaction for both men and women, meaning they felt better about the number of hours they were working. But they weren’t actually more satisfied with their lives or their jobs in general. Rudolf did not find any significant effects of the policy on life or job satisfaction, noting “these findings are probably not what policy makers had intended when designing the reform.” A for effort, reformers, but we humans are pretty much determined to be unhappy no matter what.

Implications: Rudolf suggests that perhaps workers’ spirits are being crushed in new ways to make up for fewer working hours, like getting less time off for vacation and holidays, or being expected to work more intensely while they are at the office, which can lead to stress, burnout and drinking wine while crying under your desk. There was some evidence that workers whose hours were reduced had increased work intensity, but not enough to be certain that was the cause of everyone’s continued unhappiness.


The study, Work Shorter, Be Happier? Longitudinal Evidence from the Korean Five-Day Working Policy, was published in August in the Journal of Happiness Studies.

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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