How Many Hours Should You Work Per Week?Natalia Persin
We currently live in an overworked culture. Staying late at the office, taking on multiple jobs, and heaping tons of additional projects on top of an already hefty workload are all seen as respectable parts of “the grind,” which itself has acquired a nearly moral attachment in the general psyche.
Hard work should be respected, but how far is too far? Is a 60 or 90-hour workweek really necessary? Is it the best way to get high-quality work done?
To some, we’re actively celebrating an overworked culture that privileges time on the clock over the actual work done. Perhaps this mindset has been growing since the establishment of the first hourly wage, but in any case, it’s clear many people are prioritizing the grind over true productivity and, in the end, happiness.
Read on to find out how many hours you should work depending on your job, goals, and personal philosophy. There may not be a perfect answer for every individual, but there are some general truths that everyone should consider.
The Rise of the Workweek
Most full-time jobs define a workweek as 40-hours. The typical 9-to-5 has workers on the clock for 8 hours a day, although some companies extend these working hours to accommodate an unpaid lunch break.
As normal as it seems to us now, the 40-hour workweek is a modern invention. In the United States, it was established by a 1940 modification to the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act. Labor organizations such as the National Labor Union had been agitating for the 40-hour workweek as early as 1866.
This massive change to the workweek occurred when people’s jobs were almost solely performed in factories and, to a lesser extent, offices. There was no such thing as remote work or working from home – if your workplace wasn’t open, you couldn’t work a shift.
The demand for a shorter workweek varied and still does today. Some advocate for the four-day workweek and a few Silicon Valley types have gone as low as 15 or 20 hours of work per week.
Before the establishment of the 40-hour workweek, the average number of hours worked was as high as 100 hours per week according to statistics taken by the United States government. So there’s certainly been some progress toward a more equitable work-life divide. But is the 40-hour workweek still necessary today?
Who Works 40 Hours Per Week?
Not everyone works a steady 40 hours each week, which is probably no surprise to most readers since so many people have taken to remote work and regular overtime hours in the last two years or so. The vast majority of American companies are required to pay overtime for most employees. However, there are some exceptions.
Exceptionally small businesses whose commerce doesn’t cross state lines in any way are not subject to the FLSA, although their individual state may and likely does have its own labor provisions surrounding overtime.
Part-time workers generally don’t have their own overtime rules because they don’t typically work anywhere near 40 hours per week, hence their classification. They are still owed overtime if they do work overtime by the FLSA. Some states also have daily overtime standards under which part-time and full-time employees can get paid time and a half if they work over a certain limit in a single day.
Finally, we have salaried employees. They aren’t paid by the hour and therefore aren’t entitled to overtime if they work additional hours in a given workweek. There is a minimum salary threshold that salaried employees must earn in order to be exempt from the overtime provision of the FLSA.
Regardless of whether you work 40 hours a week or are entitled to overtime for anything beyond 40 hours, it’s still worth questioning whether you should aim for that amount of work or not. Some very recent changes in the workforce have made it difficult for many professionals to answer this question.
How Many Hours Should You Work Remotely?
Remote work was growing steadily until its popularity exploded following the unprecedented events of late 2019 and early 2020. Now, working remotely and work-from-home opportunities are more plentiful than ever in an effort to comply with social distancing regulations.
Many people have wound up putting in extra hours at work as a result. It’s not necessarily that managers have gotten stricter or added on lots of extra responsibilities for their entire staff, but rather than working from home or solely on the phone and computer makes it hard to draw a definite line between your workday and free time.
Anyone who has worked remotely knows how the temptation to answer a few work emails or even have a short conference call will pressure you when your “office” is only a few steps away from the couch where you relax. On the other side of things, companies frequently fail to accommodate for time differences in remote teams and continue to rely on unnecessary meeting structures that require people in faraway places to be logged in at the same time.
A basic rule of thumb for people who are moving to remote work and WFH from positions in traditional workplaces is that you shouldn’t be working any more hours remotely than you would have in person. If you’re starting your first job and it’s remote, stay by the 40-hour workweek for full-time jobs.
How Many Hours Should You Work Freelancing?
Even more challenging is the role of freelancers, which make up a large percentage of the total creative workforce. You might be working by the hour or you could be paid when the work is finished. How long should you spend working on projects in either case?
First and foremost, you need to project professionalism and maintain your reputation for high-quality work. Working too long could tarnish both. For instance, if you’re constantly replying to messages at late hours, it could make you seem disorganized rather than demonstrating your commitment to the grind.
Putting out the best work possible is also less likely to happen if you’re working all the time. Creativity works in the brain the same way strength works in your muscles. You can work out all the time, but if you never take a rest then your body will never repair muscle tissue and grow bigger muscles as a result.
Just like you can overtrain at the gym, you can overwork no matter what your profession. Let’s take a look at some of the more pernicious aspects of overwork culture and how you can avoid it in your career.
Hype & Overwork Culture
The vast majority of the public will have to take a job or multiple jobs to pay for the necessities of life and hopefully some fun things on the side as well. As a fact of life, work takes up lots of space in our minds. Naturally, our culture would enshrine our work values just as it has many cultural norms and moral beliefs.
But overwork culture is something else entirely. We’re not talking about the small business owner who creates their own advertisements and shows part of their workday on Instagram. Overworking is an undying commitment to be demonstrably on the clock much more than is reasonable or necessary.
“The grind never stops” sounds like a fine position to take. After all, hard work is good and allows people to afford some of the finer things in life and give their families the best of the best. But the fact is that if you want to enjoy any of those things, the grind should stop for some time.
Social media projects images of #girlbosses and relentless digital nomads who monetize aspects of their lives and promote services that appear novel to people leading more traditional lives. That’s all good and well. Finding a creative way to make a living can allow you to enjoy life more. But we’re back to the same fact: you have to stop working to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Particularly in the United States, it’s unusual to ever take a long-term break from your career. Partly because doing so is so expensive and partly because it just isn’t part of our work culture, gap years and transitional periods are more likely to earn you skeptical looks and even pity than they are to generate any interest or curiosity.
Overwork culture is far from universal, but it is a mindset that many people share. Rather than privileging life experiences or simple pleasures, expensive status symbols and shrewd business sense make up the major portion of their identities. Being busy is almost the same as being cool these days – if you ask someone what they’re doing and they say ‘nothing,’ does it sound like they’re relaxing or like they don’t have anything to do?
Anxiety & Overwork Culture
The flip side of the coin is that not everyone who overworks themselves does it to emulate an influencer they saw on social media. The global economy has taken some steep dives since the year 2000, each of which left people feeling less confident in their job security afterward.
To prove that they should be kept around when others are being let go, employees work constantly. It’s a natural reaction to want to prove oneself at work, particularly when economic anxiety is adding so much extra pressure.
Somehow, though, it’s imperative for mental health and general happiness not to fall into a trap of constant work and dwindling rewards. In the end, if the bottom line makes your role too expensive, the job is going to get cut. At the risk of sounding detached from the realities of life, work hours should be viewed with an eye toward quality over quantity.
Most businesses that focus solely on the number of hours worked aren’t the kind of businesses where work performance has much room to improve. Or management might not be interested in performance improvement as much as they are interested in someone being available to bring in money.
How Many Hours Should You Work in a Full-Time Job?
40 hours has become the standard since it was introduced almost 80 years ago. It was a huge improvement for many Americans working over double that amount each week, but is it still an optimal number of working hours today?
By some estimates, the average person spends 90,000 hours of their life at work. That’s a staggering number, but it’s not a maximum. You don’t automatically get set free once you hit the magic number, so working a fourteen-hour day is just going to make you tired without getting you any closer to retirement than an 8-hour day.
Certain industries with frequent emergency situations like healthcare may well require people to work overtime. But these industries are ideally organized to account for the specific working hours – many healthcare workers get one day on, one/two days off arrangements to account for the fact that they could very likely work for 24 hours straight.
The biggest problem with the grind is that you can grind yourself down. Burnout is a constant problem with professionals across a wide variety of industries. Reduced productivity and lower-quality work are two of the most common symptoms of both work fatigue and burnout.
Research seems to show that you can work a bit of overtime and still put out great work while enjoying some free time. 50 hours per week should be an absolute maximum and not every week should be a fifty-hour week.
Management and employees should all be on the same page about how they measure success on the job. Ideally, it’s through completed work and customer satisfaction rather than about time spent on the clock regardless of what is produced while you’re clocked in.
That might not be as achievable in some industries as it is in others. But maintaining an arbitrary work hour requirement that doesn’t match the amount of work there is to do will only lead to people goofing off on the job and might even make people start looking for better work elsewhere.
From the employee’s perspective, there may not be much you can do to reduce the number of hours you work each week. Most of the time, management will tell you what the requirements of your role are while you’re being interviewed and onboarded and it’s up to you to live up to those expectations. If you can finish all your tasks significantly ahead of schedule every single day, you’re more likely to be rewarded with more tasks than with permission to knock off early.
It’s all about staying sane and preserving your energy and creativity for new projects to come. Here are a few quick tips for getting better working hours:
Expressing your fatigue and any problems you’re having at your job will give management an idea of where solutions are needed. Maybe you shouldn’t plague them with every problem that arises, but when you can’t find a workaround and you’re approaching complete exhaustion, you should tell them about it.
- Find New Metrics
For most creatives, project completion is a great standard for when work is complete. Deliverables are another way to measure works-in-progress.
The most important thing is not to switch to these metrics and then work 60 hours a week with no overtime because it doesn’t matter until the work is finished.
- Watch Out for Edit Requests
Freelancers face this most frequently but it can happen to other creatives as well. Clients and stakeholders sending you back to the drawing board can make the working hours stack up, so make sure you’re prototyping effectively and handing in the highest-quality work to save yourself from getting overworked.
So, how many hours should you work per week? Most research says a little more than 40 hours per week is the sweet spot. But if you can get by with less and still make enough and put out great work, you absolutely should. If it takes a bit longer to produce work that makes you proud, that’s alright too.
The most important thing is to avoid being overworked and burning out. Avoiding so by actively aiming for a fair workweek will preserve your ability to put out great work and keep you on the career path you want.