America’s worship of hustle culture may be coming to an end. US workers are experiencing record levels of stress and burnout, reports Cal Newport, and they’re ready for a change. Some advocate for a shift to a 32-hour workweek. But will a shorter workweek really help when knowledge workers’ task loads no longer align with a traditional nine-to-five work day? This compelling argument to focus, instead, on a reduction in work volume will appeal to employees and managers wondering how the workplace of the future can successfully address burnout.
- Growing dissatisfaction with working conditions in the United States is fueling political support for a shorter workweek.
- The main issue for modern knowledge workers isn’t the length of the workweek, it’s work volume.
- The best solution to make work more sustainable is “Slow Productivity.”
Growing dissatisfaction with working conditions in the United States is fueling political support for a shorter workweek.
American workers are among the most stressed in the world, according to a recent Gallup poll, with high levels of burnout. Jim Harter, Gallup’s chief workplace scientist, blames this burnout on demanding jobs and a poor balance between work and life. Thanks to hustle culture, the idea of a shorter workweek, or “Slow Work,” as journalist Carl Honoré calls it, has, traditionally, remained unpopular in the United States. In the boom years of the early 2000s, the promise of wealth motivated workers to try to outwork their competitors. In the subsequent market crash, no one felt they could afford to slow down. After the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic and a recent spike in employee burnout, however, Americans may be more receptive to the idea.
“Five years ago, the Thirty-Two-Hour Workweek Act would have been dismissed as progressive hokum. Today, it’s endorsed by nearly a hundred members of Congress.”
Research from Iceland indicates that employees who transition from a five-day to a four-day workweek experience an increase in energy and a reduction in stress. Nearly 100 members of the US congress are pushing for a transition to a 32-hour workweek. This change would be of particular benefit to hourly workers, who stand to earn more in overtime pay. A federal standard of a 32-hour work- week would also shift expectations for salaried employees. Instead of being the norm, a 40-hour workweek would become an exception that employers would find it harder to justify. In some sectors, such as health care and education, a shorter work week is likely to have a significant impact on workers’ stress levels. But a shorter workweek may not be the silver bullet for the burnout many modern knowledge workers are experiencing.
The main issue for modern knowledge workers isn’t the length of the workweek, it’s work volume.
Knowledge workers today have much more autonomy than they did early in the 20th century. Many don’t have to clock in and out or even spend a set amount of time at work. But this move to increased autonomy has led employers to place different demands on workers, not in terms of time, but in terms of volume of work.
“I began to hear from many office workers who were facing eight straight hours of Zoom conferences.”
As tasks large and small accumulate, people’s ability to make long-term plans starts to suffer. They begin to feel overwhelmed and anxious. Add to that all the meetings and emails needed to coordinate multiple, simultaneously occurring projects, and it can feel like you are spending more time talking about the work you need to get done than doing it. Reducing the number of hours in the work- week fails to address the issue of a ballooning workload.
The best solution to make work more sustainable is “Slow Productivity.”
Slow Productivity considers each individual worker’s task load and aims to keep it at a sustainable level. A reduction in work volume does result in a reduction in productivity; however, a higher work volume leads, arguably, to a drop in quality and more time spent on administrative work than on completing truly vital tasks. Letting workers focus on fewer tasks at a time may allow them to work more efficiently.
“All of this, of course, would be a pain.… But in the world of work what’s easiest is rarely what’s most effective.”
If you are a boss, embracing Slow Productivity means that you can’t offload a task to an employee as soon as you think of it. In order to take the work of planning and scheduling off the plate of individual workers, organizations will need new systems which prioritize tasks and assign work as employees become available to do it. This fix may seem complicated, but if employers want to put the brakes on rising burnout, they must prioritize what works over what’s simplest.
About the Author
Cal Newport is Provost’s Distinguished Associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University. He has written numerous books including: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. He also wrote the New York Times bestseller Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.