The Birth of the American 40-Hour Week
The Monday through Friday workweek was first introduced in 1926 when Henry Ford began shutting down his automotive factories on Saturday and Sunday to allow his labor force to rest. But it was not until 1940, when a provision of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act mandating a maximum 40-hour workweek went into effect, that the two-day weekend was adopted nationwide.
New Department of Labor Ruling
In May 2016, the Department of Labor made a ruling to revise the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regarding overtime regulations to prevent exploitation of those making $47,476 or less annually from working over 40 hours a week without overtime compensation. According to the Society of Human Resources Management that is more than double the old threshold of $23,660 for an exempt position even for those classified as manager or professional roles. This new rule goes into effect on December 1, 2016.
That’s a great step in the right direction for protecting people below 50K annually from working more than 40-hours a week without additional compensation. However, we still have a long way to go to fix the burn and churn professional culture and work expectations in many career industries. And what about individuals who earn above the FLSA exempt rate? Should anyone be expected to work more than 40 hours a week?
Pencils Down on Wall Street
The financial and legal sectors have for decades expected well over the traditional 40-hour workweek from their employees. To be clear, the salaries are far above the FLSA exempt status of $47,476 annually. It does however come at a price – you earn the big bucks and the company owns you.
This is particularly common for rookie lawyers and financial industry professionals who have not yet earned their worth in the organization via billable hours or credibility. The burn and churn mindset for newly minted lawyers and business professionals often requires them to work 90 hours a week to earn their keep. Weekends and late nights are a given. While meals provided on site might seem like a perk, it’s also a way to keep you working around the clock without leaving the office.
Recruitment and retention are the biggest challenges for the antiquated corporate entities not willing to adjust to the professional values of the new workforce. Many young professionals don’t want to work 90 hours a week even with a big salary.
JPMorgan is taking part in the “Pencils Down” initiative in the hopes of returning some life to the work/life balance of its bankers.
Wall Street corporate giants are following suit by strongly encouraging employees to take the weekends off – at least when they are not working on imminent deals. John Donnelly, head of Human Resources for JPMorgan, told Business Insider, the hope is that the new rule will lead to a “structural” change in the bank’s work culture.
“Under specific situations and emergencies, we all understand that sometimes you have to be in on weekends,” Donnelly said. “But making it a routine and a regular, expected thing is really just not necessary.”
Does a Higher Salary Require More Hours?
The question remains – does a higher salary mean you are obliged to work more hours? If so, what are the boundaries and how can one sustain this long term? There is a growing body of research that indicates how important time away from work is for health and wellness – not to mention productivity on the job.
The British Medical Journal Lancet published a study indicating that people who work more than 55 hours a week have a 33% higher risk of stroke than those who work 35-40 hours a week. The 55+ hour/week workers are also at a 13% higher risk of heart disease. Bottom line – perpetual long hours negatively impacts productivity and increases health problems.
As a career coach, I work with people in numerous job sectors and I know the mega hour workweek problem is not just a phenomenon of the corporate world. It’s pervasive in all career fields and it must be addressed.
The “everyone is replaceable” mindset of burning-out the human workforce only to replenish them with other employees is unethical and unwise. It takes more financial resources to recruit and train new talent than to develop and retain current employees.
Overworking employees leads to low morale, lower cognitive function, and a fall off in productivity, according to a Stanford study. It’s not good for business and it’s never a good thing for the people working too much.
Top Down Solution
Those at the top level in every organization hold the power to changing the work culture. If the Wall Street executives walk the talk with the Pencils Down concept then junior employees will not fear retribution for working more reasonable hours.
Leadership must create a culture that focuses on productivity and not obligatory face time. By acting as role models, leaders set the tone in their organizations for employees in both work/life integration practices and expectations for productivity and excellence.
It’s obvious that all organizations have crunch time deadlines, special projects, and scenarios that will require late nights and weekend work from time to time. That is to be expected. But the continual pace of mega-hour workweeks is unhealthy, unsustainable and unrealistic for both the organization and the employees in the long run.
A New Normal Workplace
Career management is a difficult journey for working adults. The challenge of dividing each 24-hour period into segments that include work, family, wellness, and sleep – not to mention activities outside of work that are meaningful and gratifying – is often unattainable.
I believe the new work generation and some progressive organizations are moving the needle on work/life integration expectations in the career space. People can be highly productive and successful at work and still engage in their personal lives but they need to find work places that share the same professional values.
The unsustainable over-working culture is being challenged by companies like Netflix that have created new rules of engagement to attract and retain top talent by requiring them to work hard and giving them the flexibility to enjoy their lives.
Netflix gives its employees freedom and responsibility. They expect high performance and they pay top of market. They define a great workplace not by the number of espresso machines but by the stunning colleagues committed to delivering above and beyond and by helping each other achieve and sustain greatness.
They don’t track vacation days or work hours daily but rather expect accountability and responsibility from each employee to do great work – all the time. “The Netflix leaders set good examples by taking big vacations – and coming back inspired to find big ideas.” They have minimized rules and believe that flexibility is more important than efficiency in the long run. They hire, reward and tolerate only “fully formed adults” and those who do not deliver are asked to move on.
Creating a New Culture for Sustainable Success
As organizations and industries evolve to meet the needs and demands of the new workforce I believe we’ll see many changes. My wish list includes:
- Opportunities for Job Sharing and Non-Traditional Part-Time Opportunities
- Flexible Work Schedules on a 24 hour cycle
- Remote and Virtual Work Environments
- Focus on Outcomes and Accountability – Not Weekly Hours
- Wellness Integration in the Workplace
- Utilizing Vacation Time
- Leadership Role Models for Healthy, Productive, and Accountable Behavior
- Willingness to Adapt to the Changing Talent Pool and Their Needs
We’ve come a long way since Henry Ford’s assembly line in 1926 but we still have challenges to overcome in order to sustain a healthy and productive workforce.
Find out more about Caroline Dowd-Higgins at