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How much work are you really supposed to do at work?

Most offices have eight-hour workdays – how many of those hours are we really supposed to be working? We asked a productivity expert, a psychologist, a labour journalist and a boss.

If you work an offIce job, your life is probably run by eight-hour intervals set by a corporation: nine to five, eight to four, 10 to six. Those hours tend to expand when working from home – scrolling emails at 7pm, sitting at a monitor between snippets of childcare and chores, more emails before bed. These hours dictate our sleep schedules. They determine when we have free time and how often we see our family. We slot breakfast, lunch and dinner around time spent at work.

But while it’s true you’re at work during those eight hours, you probably aren’t sitting at your computer doing work the entire time, even if you’re in the office. You might grab a coffee with coworkers or take a personal phone call. And you probably spend at least some of the time doing nothing but checking TikTok or browsing Zara.

That’s not only reasonable; it’s innate. For humans, concentrating on work for every minute of an eight-hour day is “impossible”, says Malissa Clark, a Psychologist at the University of Georgia in the US whose research focuses on employee wellbeing and workaholism.

But how many hours should we actually work? What are other people doing? In a 2016 UK survey, 1 989 full-time office workers reported working an average of two hours and 53 minutes per day. That’s just one survey. But there’s a lot of evidence that office work isn’t as productive as we think. In 2006, Gloria Mark, a Researcher at the University of California, gathered data from phones and computers and found that the average time people spent working on a device at a time was two minutes and 11 seconds, shorter than some TikTok videos. And in a survey of 1 000 American office workers in 2018, 36% of millennial and Gen-Z employees estimated that they spend two hours a day distracted by their smartphones.

No matter your intention, whether you’re working from a home office or next to your coworkers, it really is hard to work consistently at work. We’re being set up to fail – and to feel bad about it. There has to be a better way.

Why do we work eight hours a day?

If we know people can’t focus for that long, why insist that workers put in at least eight hours? “The length of the working day isn’t based on science but struggle,” says Sarah Jaffe, Author of Work Won’t Love You Back. Eight hours isn’t a figure that reflects how long a human can focus or the amount needed to keep the economy running. Jaffe says it’s based “on the fact that factory workers used to work 14 hours, and then they struck and fought until they got it down to 10, and then they struck and fought until they got it down to eight.”

In the 1800s, the eight-hour day was radical. But why is it still being applied almost 200 years later? You know what’s changed – we have tools that allow almost every sort of production in almost every industry to be more efficient than it was. In the past, I would’ve spent hours in a library verifying the spelling of the last names in this article. Today, it took about 50 seconds.

The other problem with a 19th-century work model is that it was designed for a time when most women were homemakers. “This 40-hour workweek was designed when we still had this breadwinner model in families where one person would be the worker, and one person would stay at home and take care of the family role,” says Malissa. If you’ve ever struggled to work 40 hours a week and meal prep and clean and run errands and care for your child, this is why: 40 hours of work is a reasonable expectation for someone with a full-time worker at home.

How productive are we, even?

Given new technology, maintaining long work weeks should lead to amazing productivity, right? Not necessarily. “There’s diminishing returns when you get to a certain total number of hours,” says Melissa Nightingale, Co-author of Unmanageable: Leadership Lessons From an Impossible Year. “The quality of work, the more hours you’re putting in – it sort of drops off a cliff .” Melissa was referring to people who work extreme hours. But many of us try to go above and beyond that 40-hour mark – especially in uncertain economic times like this

pandemic. The ethos of working hard and getting ahead is commonly accepted. But is it common sense? “This idea of working to be the best employee, working even more than that to shine and rise above the rest – I think that’s a horrible idea,” says Malissa. “It’s inevitably going to lead to burnout.” It’s also not clear if bosses can tell the difference.

Researcher Erin Reid interviewed over 100 workers at a top consulting fi rm who were expected to work up to 80 hours per week. She found a trend: often, women would ask for time off to take care of their children and personal needs, which impacted their career growth. Men took similar time off , but instead of asking for permission, would often simply do fewer hours of work while ‘passing’ as 80-hour-per-week-ers. Crucially, bosses didn’t know which workers were actually working 80 and which were working 50 or 60. They just preferred the workers who appeared to do 80 hours.

So, what are we supposed to do at work?

Without discussing it, and maybe without even knowing it, office workers have tacitly agreed to work maybe half or two-thirds of a workday. We might sit at our desks for more than eight hours, but we’re not doing eight hours of work. That means we spend hours of our lives – hundreds of hours a year – doing a sort of ‘playing pretend’ to appease our bosses.

This can’t be a secret – it’s the exact premise of The Office. But we don’t really talk about it, maybe because working hard is one of the last truly bipartisan values. Our Puritan ancestors believed that hard work is the key to salvation.

These days, Sarah points out, since necessities such as health care are provided through work instead of provided through work instead of the government, we tend to believe that work represents a person’s worth. Seeming unproductive is seen as more sinful than cruelty or disregard for others. In the era of hustle culture, arguing for a standard work week of fewer than 40 hours feels almost heretical. But if eight hours isn’t necessarily what bosses expect from office workers – and it’s not what most people are doing – what should we be doing? We asked a time-management expert, a psychologist, a labour journalist and an actual boss.

By Jenny Singer

Read the full article in GLAMOUR’s December-January Party Issue. Purchase your digital copy, here.

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