Originally published on my Psychology Today blog.
An ongoing theme of this blog has been the profoundly negative effects of stress and overwork induced by our work culture, both of which are chronic problems that are undermining our emotional (and physical) healthy every day.
Now comes news of two major studies on the emotional and practical dimensions of the topic and their interesting findings, helpfully described in a new article by Quentin Fottrell of MarketWatch (link to article is here). One study discourages the long-held belief (promoted by big business) that more lenient workplace schedules depress a nation’s economic competitiveness, while another suggests that cutting the length of the work week boosts emotional health among a variety of other positive value for society.
Dean Baker, co-director of the left-of-center Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. addressed some of the economic trends involved: “Countries like Germany stand out,” he says of the prosperous European economies known for their generous time-off policies. “It’s been remarkably successful.” He goes on to cite the fact that the unemployment rate in Germany (5.2 percent) is down more than 4 percentage points since before the 2008 recession, while the U.S. unemployment rate (6.1 percent) is still more than 1.5 percentage points higher than it was before the recession.
This suggests that the correlation between hours worked and actual productivity is not nearly as straight forward as most Americans would assume.
Addressing the emotional and social aspects of the issue, a report from the London-based, left-of-center think tank New Economics Foundation found that cutting the workweek roughly in half would help to address overwork, overconsumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, and, crucially, the “lack of time to simply to enjoy life.”
The writer also quotes Anna Coote, head of social policy at NEF, as adding that the deputy mayor of a major Swedish city is trialing a 30-hour week for staff, on the theory—recently gaining in popularity due to other findings—that thirty hours per week is roughly the limit for productive time in an office environment.
In fairness, Fottrell cites researcher Robert Rudolf, assistant professor in the Division of International Studies at Korea University, whose own study found that people given a reduction in working hours reported no strong impact on job or life satisfaction.
Of course these are just studies, and their findings may or may not be accurate. But the fact remains that more and more research seems to be indicating that the societal ills of chronic stress, mental illness and physical illness are tightly connected, and that an adjustment in the work culture of the United States might likely bring emotional benefits that offset these afflictions.