The Myth of the Eight-Hour Workday

maternal wall

Let's rewind back to our high school days - the clock strikes 3:15, the bell rings, and everyone stands up at the same time, rushing for the door...hardly a model for "real life." Now, think about your organization - while employees' hours might be 9-5, you probably rarely, if ever, see everyone simultaneously sit down at their desks at 9 and make a mad rush for the door at 5 on the dot.

What started as an eight-hour workday has since transformed.

The History of the Eight-Hour Workday

The desire for an eight-hour workday dates back as far as the 1800s, when factory workers began to realize the 24/7 operation was not sustainable. The first employers to jump on the eight-hour bandwagon surprised everyone when they saw trimmed hours result in higher productivity and profit margins.

But just like the revolution that brought 15-hour days down to eight, the workday is transforming yet again. Why?

Life that Flows into Work

The modern employee is different from the mid-twentieth century's 9-5 version. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says 60% of married couples with children have both parents in the workforce, and Pew says 40% of households are headed by female breadwinners. That translates to dads needing to be home to accommodate school bus schedules and moms coaching kids' soccer teams. Additionally, an increasing number of employees need to be on hand for aging parents, all things that shift the work schedule decidedly outside the eight-hour window.

Work that Flows Into Life

Even for those who fit the eight-hour mold, the advanced technology available at our fingertips means work lingers beyond quitting time, always just a click away. Many find comfort in this - they're able to check their email on Sunday to prepare for Monday morning's craziness, respond to an easy request while they're waiting for dinner to finish cooking, and weed out emails before they head back to work from vacation. For others, this means that work follows them home, causing them to develop an "always on" mentality, working whenever they need to.

So What's the Answer?

In our increasingly fragmented work arrangements, the norm for the workday is becoming no norm at all. Today, the U.S. workforce is putting in 8.9 hours per day, on average - meaning the workday doesn't necessarily fit neatly into the 9-5 model anymore.

Some organizations are recognizing this by focusing on employees' completion of deadlines versus the time frame or window in which they're completed. Flexible schedules are becoming more common, as many employers are developing the mindset that as long as employees are getting their work done, it doesn't necessarily matter when they're completing it. When employees' workdays don't fit into the eight-hour mold, employers who provide flexibility will win out in terms of employee retention, keeping them engaged and helping them handle work and life, even when they have a lot on their plates.  
three happy employees working together

The Business Benefits of Being a Dream Company

Download our full report on becoming a Dream Company to see how a positive “Dream” culture impacts employee performance.

Written by: Jeannie Krill

April 16, 2019

About the Author

Jeannie Krill at Bright Horizons

As a former Bright Horizons preschool teacher, Jeannie has seen what child care means to clients firsthand. She also offers a view from the Millennials camp, cluing us into what’s challenging today’s largest demographic, and what they really want. She holds a BA in Psychology from Valparaiso University.