Last Updated: July 30th, 2020

Cars and walking traffic

Guest Post by Tiiu Lutter
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about the 40-hour workweek during my mind-numbing, 50-minute, 8-mile commute, surrounded by distracted drivers. How much of my life is actually spent working, and how much more is spent prepping? What’s left for my life?

When I first mentioned to my family that I was writing on this topic, my millennial children reacted in horror, and almost unanimously my peers agreed that this might be a good idea, but wondered if we could actually get anything done.

Here’s the thing. My children thought I was looking at expanding the workweek to fifty hours or more, and my peers thought I was thinking of shortening it! The truth of the matter is that I wasn’t thinking about either of those things. 

I love the idea of a 40-hour workweek, but I don’t actually think it exists in America anymore. So for me, the questions are:

  • Does anyone actually work only forty hours in a week?
  • How much prep time is getting burned up?
  • Can anyone be successful working only forty hours? 

A brief history of the 40-hour workweek

How did we end up with forty hours as the magic number, anyway? Turns out the first reference to 40 hours comes from 1817, when Robert Owen, a Scottish labor activist demanded working folks got “forty hours of work, forty hours of rest, and forty hours of recreation.” 

Here in the United States, the National Labor Union asked Congress in 1866 to pass a law limiting the workday to eight hours. This law did not pass, but it empowered a movement. By the early 1900s, many big companies had agreed to an eight hour day, but there was only one day of rest. 
In theory, this is still the case, but it is a particularly American challenge to choose work over recreation or even rest. According to a 2019 study by Ipsos for the U.S. Travel Association, Americans left behind 768 million days of vacation in 2018. Only 55 percent of us who earned vacation took it all. 

We have been conditioned to work as much as we can and to pull for the team. 

The challenge is, though, that we end up missing major events in our lives. I work with many elderly people, and not one of them says, “Gee, I wish I had worked more.” Rather, they all wish they had spent a little more time at home, at the beach, or on that trip across country. 

How much are you actually working? 

Let’s look at the way we work. There are basically three types of employment structures: 

  • Exempt
  • Nonexempt
  • Gig

I have an exempt position, which by definition means that when my work is done, I get to go home, even if it’s only been thirty hours. On the flip side, when it’s crunch time, I work long hours because not just anyone can do my job. 

I never work a 30-hour week. I can honestly say that I average 47–52 hours a week, and that doesn’t include my commute, getting dressed in “office professional,” or the time spent at home prepping for meetings. I don’t know a single exempt (salaried) American who works just forty hours and takes all their vacation. I just don’t.
Nonexempt workers perform jobs that many people can do within a company, and they are less specialized. They get paid hourly, and if they are required to work more than forty hours in a week, or eighty hours in two weeks, they are supposed to earn overtime. 

The problem is, pretty much all the hourly workers I know have second jobs. 

The companies they work for are adverse to overtime, so they are capped somewhere around 30–35 hours a week. That means they have a second job to help make ends meet. Both jobs put together mean about a 60-hour workweek. For them, the challenge is taking off from both jobs to have a life. 
The people I know in the gig economy work all the time, because when you are gigging, the attitude is that if you aren’t working, you are not working. The feeling there is you need to take every job, because this one may lead to better connections. Most of them work 50–70 hours a week just to keep their heads above water, too. 

The drawbacks of a 40-hour workweek

So what about that 40-hour workweek? In an ideal world, how much would this leave us for living? There are 168 hours in a week. If we use forty for work and forty for sleep, that leaves us just over half of our time for the rest of life. That’s not bad! But is it accurate? 

It is not accurate. No one actually works a 40-hour workweek. There are additional time-sucks. 

For me, that means: 

  • Commuting (7 hours)
  • Additional time working at the office (7–12 hours)
  • Work at home prepping or finishing work (8–10 hours)
  • Getting ready up to business professional (5 hours)
  • Making my work list before bed (2)

In reality, work fills almost eighty hours a week! No wonder we are all exhausted. 
Before we just accept this as the cost of life in these times, let’s consider the benefits of a true 40-hour week. If I actually worked just forty hours, I would be able to accomplish all the things I dream of doing in my downtime instead of just hoping for a 10-minute break each day. 

The benefits of a 40-hour workweek

If I worked just 40 hours a week, I could be healthier because I could get to the gym, and I would have time to cook dinner instead of ordering out. I would be more rested because I wouldn’t be borrowing from my sleep time to finish work. 

More importantly, I could use my vacation time. I could go to the beach, go skiing, and I could read those incredible books on my list. Of course, skiing is expensive, so I have to squeeze in just a bit more extra work to make more money. . . You can see it’s a cycle, but one that is deeply out of balance. 

Workers in the past fought so hard for the right to rest and have free time, but today’s wages are stagnant, and it is very difficult to enjoy life. While we fight for social change, there are steps we can take to improve our work/life balance and get closer to those golden forty.

How you can improve your work-life balance

So here is my proposal: We should not be working more than fifty hours a week in total. We have to be smart as individuals and make priorities. We can work all the time to break even, or we can cut out expenses from the extra car, the house cleaner, the Starbucks drink, and the take-out dinner. 

We should set limits on our time working outside of work and plan with our teams to be realistic, and to ensure the right things are getting done. Work limits can actually improve productivity. Studies show that productivity decreases sharply when we work more than fifty hours. 

So let’s trust the research and enjoy the free time we have earned with our discipline. I think I am going to start planning my vacation right now!

Tiiu Lutter, MA, writes for the insurance comparison site,, and is the director of development at a mental health nonprofit. She also co-owns a family counseling center. 

Top of Page chevron_right
Was this content helpful?
thumb_up Yes thumb_down No

The Top Career Certification Companies

U.S. Career Institute Logo
#1 U.S. Career Institute chevron_right
4.0 Overall Score
star star star star_half star_border
Stratford Career Institute Logo
#2 Stratford Career Institute chevron_right
3.7 Overall Score
star star star_half star_border star_border
Project Management Institute (PMI) Logo
#3 Project Management Institute (... chevron_right
3.2 Overall Score
star star star_border star_border star_border

Related Articles

Get Our Newsletter – Be in the Know

Sign up below to receive a monthly newsletter containing relevant news, resources and expert tips on Career Certification and other products and services.

We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time. Privacy Policy