A glorious three-day weekend has arrived for (most) “knowledge workers,” that euphemistic term for those of us who spend our days hunched over a keyboard, eyes locked for hours at a time on the screen ahead. But here’s the thing: The bulk of the research in medicine, sleep, cognitive science, and organizational psychology overwhelmingly suggests that a shorter workweek should be the norm rather than the holiday-weekend exception.
Many companies in the U.S. have already picked up on this, according to a recent report from the nonprofit Families and Work Institute, which found that 43 percent of the 1,051 employers surveyed offered compressed workweeks to at least some employees. During your three days of freedom this weekend, Science of Us suggests that you spend part of that time pondering the arguments for why more of us should be working fewer hours.
You’d be healthier. Long hours at the office are pretty terrible for your heart, decades of large medical studies have found. Just last month, The Lancet published a big meta-analysis — a study of studies, basically — that looked at the link between heart disease and overwork in more than 600,000 American, European, and Australian men and women. They found that the individuals who worked longer hours — 55 hours per week or more — had a 33 percent increased risk of stroke than people who worked less than 40 hours per week; the overworked employees also had a 13 percent greater risk of developing heart disease compared to their peers who worked fewer hours.
Longer hours were especially hard on the hearts of the lower-income individuals included in the Lancet meta-analysis, and another big meta-analysis published in The Lancet: Diabetes & Endocrinology earlier this year found that people who work long hours doing manual labor or other non-white-collar jobs had a 30 percent increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes than people who worked less than 40 hours a week at those same types of jobs.
You’d sleep more. People who work less than 40 hours a week also, not surprisingly, tend to get more sleep, and they also have an easier time falling asleep than their peers who work more than 55 hours per week. Of the 10,000 employees included in a 2009 paper published in the journal Sleep, those who reported working 40 hours a week or less slept more hours, had an easier time falling asleep, and were more likely to wake up feeling refreshed than those who worked longer hours.
The reason, the researchers posit: Working long hours leaves little time to chill. “Relaxation has been recognized as an important prerequisite in the prevention of sleep-onset insomnia,” they write. “As long working hours have been found to be associated with increased need of recovery after work, these employees would actually need more time to recover than workers with workdays of normal length.”
You’d be less of a jerk, probably. Overwork leads to overtiredness, and sleepy people are more likely to be emotional basket cases. When people are low on energy, they are more likely to misread other people’s emotions, even getting the fairly obvious ones — like “happy” and “angry” — wrong. Sleepy people also tend to be more likely to pick fights with their significant others than the well-rested.
All of that, plus, you’ll be better at your job. This is the paradoxical magic of a shorter workweek, and it is as true today as it was 200 years ago, as Sarah Green Carmichael pointed out in a recent Harvard Business Review post. “In the 19th century, when organized labor first compelled factory owners to limit workdays to 10 (and then eight) hours, management was surprised to discover that output actually increased — and that expensive mistakes and accidents decreased,” Carmichael writes, adding that in 2009 a pair of Harvard Business School researchers decided to try bringing this experiment into the 21st century.
In one of their experiments, the researchers forced employees at a consulting firm in Boston to take a day off — totally off, no email check-ins allowed — in the middle of the workweek. After five months of this routine, the firm’s clients reported an improvement in service from the teams who took time off, as compared to the clients of the teams who worked their usual 50-plus hours per week.
All of this is to say: Enjoy your three-day weekend, and let us dream together of a world in which this is the norm.