Are Americans wrong about work? New research and practical experience suggests we Americans are wrong about work, and that if we want to be more productive, we may have to work less.
The news from Sweden is promising. Some workers in that country had their workweek reduced to 30 hours, and everybody, including their employers, is happy about it.
A pilot program tested in the city of Svartedalens, put workers on six-hour workdays, but prohibited employers from cutting wages. This means workers received 40 hours of pay for 30 hours of work. Many predicted it would be a disaster, but as it turns out productivity has increased. Workers are happy, customers are more satisfied, and business is more profitable. What does this say about our understanding of work?
The American work ethic has two powerful influences. The first is Puritan Protestant religion. The most famous Puritan proverb is, “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.” The notion behind the Puritan work ethic is that work is good for the soul. It keeps us busy and leaves us no time to commit sins. From work comes prosperity.
A century after the Puritans, Adam Smith explained that people are naturally lazy and must be compelled to work. Wages provide the carrot, while overseers and the threat of starvation make the stick.
But how accurate are these understandings? In the United States, to refuse work is considered a tremendous sin against one’s neighbor, who then pays taxes to subsidize the layabout’s living. Most Americans boast about how much they work, despite the fact that only about half of Americans actually work.
At the same time, Americans say they hate their jobs. According to Gallup, workplace dissatisfaction may be as high as 90 percent with the vast majority of workers saying they are “not engaged” or are “actively disengaged” from their jobs. (Source, Barry Schwartz – New York Times, Aug 28, 2015)
It’s a staggering figure.
Recently, experts have suggested we are taking the wrong approach to work.
The Catholic Church teaches about work. The Church mandates leisure because it is within leisure time that people find time to pray, attend church, and look after their families. From antiquity, the Church has been right about work –there needs to be a balance. Man is not intended to toil. The market is made for man, not man for the market. By following natural law and Church teaching, we can find a better way. The Church has long known what is breaking news in Sweden.
As it happens, people naturally prefer to work and contribute. This makes sense. Without the inherent inclination to work and produce, human civilization would never have started. It is in our nature to produce, to do something with ourselves. In fact, it is laziness that’s unnatural, and work is natural.
So why does it seem everyone is so lazy?
It’s because we are overworking ourselves, performing labor that does not engage our minds or fulfill us. We are watched and monitored and punished for slight infractions. And we resent when work interferes with our needs and wants. We have been classically conditioned to hate work.
Swedish researchers found a solution. An experiment in the town of Svartedalens was staged to test the idea of a shorter workday. To protect workers from losing income, the experiment required businesses to pay 40 hours of wages on 30 hours of work. Instead of eight-hour shifts, workers went home after six hours.
Everyone was surprised by the results. Employers were afraid of losing money and productivity, but instead both grew. And the employees were happier too. They had more time during the day to be involved in their children’s lives. They could schedule personal activities around work more easily. They were healthier and missed fewer days of work.
Why is this so? As it turns out, most people play while they are at work. It is somewhat unnatural for the human brain to focus unceasingly on a task for eight hours per day. Workers quickly find ways to kill time at work while still appearing productive.
The result is the employer is gets six hours of labor while paying for eight.
However, when the workday is cut workers perform the same amount of labor in less time. Since the day is shorter, workers do not feel the same urge to waste time or to do other things besides their jobs. The workday does not consume their entire day or compete against other obligations. There’s less resentment.
Despite the results, many employers are terrified of the idea. Whipping employees into submission for eight hours may not be ideal, but it provides a reliable rate of return. It pays to have a factory full of miserable workers.
But what the study in Sweden has revealed, is it pays even more to have happy workers.
Employers fear their productivity will fall while wages remain at 40 hours, thus cutting profits. For a low-margin business, it is a genuine concern.
Businesses have also expressed concerns about having to hire more, but this hasn’t happened because workers are still as productive as they were at eight hours.
Shorter workweeks are part of the future. At one time, the workweek was much longer than 40 hours, and it extended for six days, not five. However, Henry Ford established the eight-hour workday. Technology made longer shifts unnecessary. Labor unions won shorter workweeks. Laws improved conditions and guaranteed better wages.
Each time, business reacted with fear. Despite the concerns, these improvements in working hours, conditions and pay have resulted in higher productivity and greater efficiency. Technology gets some of the credit, but treating people like people, instead of machines, helps quite a bit too.
Americans are already very productive, despite slacking off at work each day. Perhaps it’s time for us to rethink our approach to work. A shorter work week could have major health and social benefits while making workers more productive. If everybody profits, why not make the change?
And Sweden, it pays to listen to the Church!