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Is the 38-hour work week dead?

In the midst of the technological revolution – the 21st century version of the Industrial Revolution – is it time to can the 38-hour week?

More than two centuries ago, Australia introduced an eight-hour work day, as a result of workers protesting for better labour conditions during the Industrial Revolution. Roughly a century later, the Commonwealth Arbitration Court ruled that weekly work hours in Australia were to be reduced from 44 to 40, and stated that this might continue to change with the times.

Fast forward to today and the debate over what an ‘optimal’ working week looks like continues. The standard Australian conditions vary across industries, but we’re generally expected to complete 38 hours. How does this compare to the rest of the world? Over in France, the work week was contentiously reduced to 35 hours in 2000. Meanwhile in Sweden, a recent trial held at an elderly care facility found that a six-hour work day resulted in healthier, happier and more productive staff.

What does all this mean for Australia’s work structure today?

Times have changed – the internet, smartphones and globalised digital apps have paved the road for cross-border communication, workplace flexibility and remote working. Whether it’s through video conferencing, project management software or other digital tools, in the midst of the technological revolution there is merit to the argument that the traditional nine-to-five model is no longer essential.

So, what is the ideal work-life model that promotes a healthy and productive society and how do we achieve it?

Less is more

In recent years, a serious case has been made for reducing our work hours and introducing more flexible practices. Researchers from the Australian National University discovered that the weekly work limit for a healthy life is 39 hours. Interestingly, this limit differed greatly between men (47 hours) and women (34 hours), as – on average – women spend more time on family and domestic work. After 39 hours, employees were found to be at greater risk of developing serious mental health issues. Lead researcher Dr Huong Dinh says long work hours “erode a person’s mental and physical health, because it leaves less time to eat well and look after themselves properly”.

The “burn and churn” culture and widespread belief that people need to work excessive hours to do a good job was never healthy, and is no longer viable. With two in three Australians working 40+ work weeks, managers and policy makers must look for ways to support people looking to work less (or different) hours.

The pushback

Despite calls for getting rid of the 38-hour work week, there are counter-arguments that suggest shorter hours would call for more time, effort and financial resources to cover the hours freed from existing employees. There is also a case to be made that attracting and retaining additional skilled staff could be unaffordable for many Australian businesses. And while shorter work days would give us more time with families and friends, the reduced hours could also mean less disposable income. Would we have the money to enjoy ourselves in the extra time gained from working less?

Achieving flexibility

The good news is there may be other ways to tackle the problem, including promoting flexible work practices that suit individuals and companies. For instance, Telstra has seen success in providing their employees with the options of flexible hours and telecommuting.

The company supports open communication and giving their employees the power to manage their time, based on their lifestyle and priorities. These practices alleviated pressure on working parents, allowing them to spend more time with family and friends without guilt. The mental and emotional wellbeing of staff has improved, and so has their productivity.

Companies must be open to accommodating their employees’ needs. At the end of the day, work is only part of life, not all of it. With the rapid technological changes resulting in societal lifestyle changes, it makes sense for our professional world to adapt too. As we await the government’s review into the future of work in Australia, we’ll be here supporting people over profit.

The 38-hour work week may not be dead, but it’s definitely being reinvented.


This article was originally written for AIA Vitality.

Image by Courtney King.