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What Would Happen If You Worked Only 8 Hours a Week?

Forget working for four days—try just one.

Key points

  • Notions of a 40-hour working week are based centuries-old working practices, rather than modern-day analyses of productivity and work stress.
  • One modern study concluded that working eight hours a week is enough to maintain well-being and the feeling that one is contributing to society.
  • The UK has started a trial of a 4-day workweek; workers get 100 percent of pay for 80 percent effort while promising 100 percent productivity
Pexels / Polina Zimmerman
Source: Pexels / Polina Zimmerman

At the beginning of this month, more than 3,300 workers in 70 UK companies began a six-month trial of a four-day working week. Its aim is to prove that you can decrease stress, and improve well-being, without affecting productivity.

But when it comes to wellness, work stress, and conversations about working hours, I am often reminded of a study that concluded that we only need to work for eight hours a week.

Yes, you read that right.

The 2019 study, published in Social Science & Medicine, found that working just eight hours a week was enough to gain the well-being benefits of employment and that happiness and well-being did not increase alongside hours. Simply put, people working eight hours a week felt as happy as those working a full week and felt that their contributions to society were just as meaningful.1

And yet, in most countries in the developed world, the prevailing culture is that you must work the standard 40 hours (or more) in order to feel happy, satisfied with your life, and (at the end of the week) left with the feeling that you are somehow making that valuable contribution.

The study was big. It used data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study, which held information on more than 80,000 people. The researchers looked at how changes in the number of hours people worked affected mental health over time and asked at what point a person's well-being improved. Basically, after that eight-hour shift, well-being plateaued, and working more did not increase it by any significant amount.

“It’s like taking Vitamin C,” said lead author and sociologist Daiga Kamerade, “we all need a certain dose, but taking it more than necessary does not bring any additional health benefits, and taking overly large amounts can actually have a harmful effect.”

The authors argued that with the proliferation of technology, such short working hours are not only possible but necessary. And before you scoff at the idea, you might want to consider the British economist John Maynard Keynes who, in 1929, predicted that workers of the future would only work 15 hours a week because of the advances in said technology. And 22 years ago, MIT biophysicist and theoretical ecologist Erik Rauch predicted that because of technological improvements, a worker today would only need to work 11 hours a week to get as much done as 40 hours in 1950.

Which begs the question: Where did it all go wrong?

Notions of a 40-hour week are as entrenched as they ever were. Detractors of the four-day working week studies are legion. And yet, any notions of how many hours we are "supposed" to be working are not only an anachronism but also a throwback to the nineteenth century, no less.

The eight-hour day or 40-hour week was a social movement fighting to get away from the excesses and abuses that workers of the time were subject to. Although the eight-hour day began in 16th-century Spain, the modern movement dates to the Industrial Revolution (where the working day could range from 10 to 16 hours).

In 1817, Welsh textile manufacturer and philanthropist Robert Owen coined the slogan "eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest," as a backlash against working patterns designed to keep factories going day and night. And so, the notion of a 40-hour working week was born. And we’ve been stuck with it ever since.

In fact, many people the world over are working much longer than that, which is why work stress is the number one cause of staff absenteeism. So much for that predicted technological liberation.

But back to the four-day working week. The pilot, running for six months, has been organised by the 4 Day Week Global in partnership with the thinktank Autonomy, the 4 Day Week Campaign, together with researchers at Cambridge University, Oxford University, and Boston College.

The trial is based on a 100:80:100 model, which means that workers will receive 100 percent of pay for 80 percent of the time, in exchange for maintaining 100 percent productivity.

Juliet Schor, a professor of sociology at Boston College and lead researcher on the pilot (which rolls out soon in Spain and Scotland), described it as a historic trial. “We’ll be analysing how employees respond to having an extra day off, in terms of stress and burnout, job and life satisfaction, health, sleep, energy use, travel, and many other aspects of life,” she said.

Work stress and workplace well-being are areas of interest for me, so I look forward to the results of the pilot. In the meantime, I’m taking a long, hard look at my working hours: Do I want to work for two hours a day, for four days of the week, or in two four-hour shifts, twice a week, or do I want to get everything done in just the one day and have six days to do whatever I please?

If only.



More from Daniel Fryer M.Sc., MBSCH
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