The US has officially been working an 8-hour day since 1916 – that was 104 years ago.
Almost everything in society has changed since this date – including the introduction of HR departments and paid vacation time – but the 8-8-8 rule (8-hours of work, 8-hours of sleep and 8-hours of leisure) still fundamentally stands. With many people now working from home due to COVID-19, the lines between the three have become blurred making it harder for people to separate their work from their home life, affecting their productivity. This, along with the archaic 8-8-8 schedule, has compelled society to consider if there is a more appropriate time allocation for modern-day life.
Set to find the answers, we surveyed 1,000 employed US adults and spoke to some self-confessed work fanatics (who almost always work over 8-hours a day) as well as some work-life balancers (where leisure time is more plentiful).
How do US workers split their time?
The majority of employed US people work a minimum of 8 hours a day (71%), with over a third (36%) saying they work over 9 hours a day. Over half (53%) get less than 8 hours of sleep a day and just 22% said they enjoy 8 hours of leisure time each day.
For some people, working 8-hours a day is not enough to tick off their to-do list or get their job fulfillment fix. For others, it’s too much, causing stress and burnout. Professor Yehuda Baruch, author of a paper on the “positive aspects of workaholism”, says that a bit of stress is good to keep the momentum going.
“If you have too little stress, it can become boring,” says Baruch. “The saying goes that things are only done to deadlines. Sometimes without a deadline, you don’t finish things. This is stressful, but without this element of stress, things won’t be done.”
While short-lived stress is often a part of daily work life, too much-prolonged stress can have health implications, such as a lowered immune system, trouble sleeping and frequent headaches.
Sacrifices for work
How we spend our time outside of work is ultimately up to us, but there are some things we can’t and shouldn’t forego. Making compromises for how we spend our time is either out of our control or personal preference.
Rick Hughes, author of ‘Get a Life: Creating a Successful Work-Life Balance’, agrees that while our sacrifices all depend on where we’re at in life, we should aim for balance.
Hugh says: “We base our priorities on our stage in life, family and relationships, level of affluence and ultimately, what gives us purpose and meaning. Working all the time means the workplace loses out on the richness of experience we derive from non-work activities.
“I’ve met web-designers who are talented because they play games in their spare time. Or the production line employee who gets their social needs met by family events. We all need a balance to nourish and enrich us.”
Many people wouldn’t dream of giving up their sleep for work, unable to function properly on less than 8 hours. However, 41% of our respondents said they would sacrifice sleep for their job. While working into the night or becoming an early bird might seem OK, not getting enough sleep can seriously affect our productivity and our wellbeing.
In his book ‘Why We Sleep,’ Matthew Walker says: “Humans need more than seven hours of sleep each night to maintain cognitive performance. After 10 days of just 7 hours of sleep, the brain is as dysfunctional as it would be after going without sleep for 24 hours.”
But Professor Baruch says that how people manage their time, including how they view sleep, is different for everyone. “There needs to be an understanding that while work-life balance is important, different people find their balance in different ways,” he says. “For some people, their balance is the result of more work, less sleep and less leisure.”
Sacrificing family time for work – while without health consequences – means we’re potentially missing out on memorable moments that we won’t be able to get back.
40% of respondents said they would sacrifice time with their family for work. Bridal dressmaker, business owner, and self-confessed workaholic Holly Winter used to be one of these people:
“Being addicted to my work is probably different for me because it started as a hobby. My little girl told me a few weeks ago that I spend too much time in the studio, so I now make a real effort to be with my children (without my phone) when they get home from school.”
The thing that most people sacrifice for work is time spent relaxing, with 2 out of 3 people from our survey admitting they do so. Many people feel that even if they made time to decompress, the thought of work would still be on their mind, hindering their relaxation efforts. But stepping away from work and freeing your mind by doing the things you love has been found to help people concentrate better when they do go back to the grind.
Professor Mark Cropley, author of "The Switch Off", agrees, saying: “We’re at our most creative when we’re unwinding. By unwinding and getting away from the work situation, you become more engaged and energised.”
Small business owner Jessica Robinson makes time to do the things she loves to give her mind a rest: “It’s really important to be able to switch off, but it’s also really hard when you run your own business. I used to work all hours. Now, I make sure to go to the gym, ride horses and walk the dog in my downtime. I need to keep my brain as healthy as my body.”
The problem is, for those who have made their hobby their vocation, the line between work and leisure is fine. Lydia McCarthy-Keen, owner of an ethical and lab-grown engagement ring company, was happy to give up her relaxation time for this very reason.
“I'd say my work is my religion. I work upwards of 12 hours, that's usually 6.5 days a week,” says McCarthy-Keen. “My 'workaholism', if you can call it that, taps into creating high-quality moments worth remembering, and impacting the diamond world in a way I find beautiful – who needs downtime from that?”
There are several reasons why a worker may put their work above their physical and mental wellbeing. Included in the list are guilt for missing work, simply having too much to do and internal pressures. It may come as no surprise that of our respondents 1 in 5 people said they would sacrifice their health for work.
While some people may try to push through despite their health, Andrew Bridgewater, chartered psychologist and author of ‘Fit for Business: How to Deal with Stress and Enjoy A Healthy Work-Life Balance’ recalled how overworking had pretty severe consequences for him: “In 2006, I ended up in a psychiatric hospital with psychotic depression and severe burnout, which shows what happens when your mind doesn’t get a chance to relax at all. I was thinking nonstop negatively 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
“We need to be aware of this stuff, but it is different for everybody, as some people thrive on this level of work and the pressure that comes with it.”
If the work fanatic lifestyle is taking its toll, but you’re not sure how to change your schedule, there are ways to introduce processes to slowly but surely adjust to a work-life balance schedule. Having a clear schedule written in a calendar can help create more defined time slots to your day. This, as well as setting alarms or installing rest reminders on your laptop, aims to enforce a hard stop and start, which can train your brain to switch off completely.
The government, media and health organisations have long reported on whether the 8-hour working day is good for us, with the possibility of initiatives such as a 4-day week and unlimited vacation days being adopted by some large companies as an incentive. But what do US workers think?
A 4-day week is the most accepted initiative, with 55% of US workers saying they would support it. Flexible working hours (starting and finishing at a time that suits you) was supported by 52% of respondents. And almost half (45%) would support both unlimited vacation days and a reduction in working hours during the week.
Some people believe in the gruelling 9-9-6 schedule, which involves working from 9am-9pm, 6 days a week. Alibaba’s founder Jack Ma endorses this initiative, saying: “If we find things we like, 996 is not a problem…if you don't like [your work], every minute is torture."
Tesla owner Elon Musk also follows this mentality, explaining: “I think there was one week where I worked 120 hours. I didn’t even go outside. But if you love what you do, it (mostly) doesn’t feel like work.”
While the adage ‘if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life’ may seem true, it can be a slippery slope. Malvika Sheth, lifestyle Instagram influencer and blogger, experienced this herself.
“When you're doing what you love as a job, you want to keep doing it for as long as you can”, says Sheth. “Both my mental and physical health have been impacted by allowing my business to take over my life. Today, I love what I do just as much, but I take control of setting important and necessary boundaries so that business is just a part of my life, not the whole thing.
As for our respondents, only 17% of US workers would be in favour of the 9-9-6 schedule, so we doubt this initiative will be coming to the US any time soon.
The word ‘workaholism’ has been used casually for so long that its meaning has lost severity. Commonly used as a catch-all term for workers who stay long hours in the office, the actual definition of workaholism is an obsessive-compulsive disorder that can have serious health effects.
Symptoms of workaholism include loss of sleep due to stress, feeling guilty or anxious during free time and finding it difficult to disengage from work.
When asked if they had experienced symptoms of workaholism, almost 90% of US workers said they had. Of these people, the most commonly experienced symptoms were as follows:
- Loss of sleep due to stress (45%)
- Skipping meals because of work (43%)
- Feeling guilty when leaving before colleagues (40%)
- Finding it difficult to disengage from work (38%)
- Feeling guilty or anxious when not working (38%)
Tim Ferriss, author of ‘The 4-Hour Workweek,’ used to be a workaholic. Frustrated with the amount of work and lack of free time he had, he took a 3-week sabbatical. In this time, he discovered that he could continue getting work done at a much slower pace and with much less computer contact by only checking his emails once a day and delegating smaller tasks to virtual assistants. This headspace gave him the idea for his successful book.
Age and gender
In terms of age, it’s the 45-54-year-olds who work the most at 9-hours per day on average, with almost 30% saying they work over 11 hours each day. This is compared to 25-35-year-olds who work just over 7-hours per day.
Concerning gender, not only would more men than women (90% compared to 77%) sacrifice sleep, free time, family time or health for work but more men (92% compared to 87% of women) say they have experienced symptoms of workaholism, too.
Work fanatic or work-life balancer: which one is best?
As we’ve seen, both methods of approaching work benefits people in numerous different ways, so maybe there is no right or wrong answer. At the end of the day, it all boils down to your commitments, unique schedule, personal passion for what you do and personal preferences. As long as you’re putting yourself first and not making yourself ill, who’s to say how you allocate your time?
In terms of the future of work, so many factors are at play that deciding on a standardised way of working that will fit in with an entire population’s lifestyle would be difficult and could also affect business output (something business owners want to avoid). There’s never going to be a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to when we work and for how long. The best we can hope for is a more flexible outlook determined by individual companies that make room for workers to decide the schedule that will support their optimum productivity.