A couple of years ago I was in a French class in Paris with students from all over the world, learning about the work habits of countries around the world. The teacher went around the room asking us each to tell us about the vacation habits in our countries.
I soon became quite embarrassed of the work-life imbalance of American culture. Everyone in the room shared their country’s standard 10 weeks of paid vacation, long paid maternity (and paternity) leave and some of the adventures they have during their time off to refresh and recharge.
Workweeks around the world
In France, for example, Paris shuts down in August when all the Parisians go on vacation for a month and the work week is 35 hours every week of the year. It makes me ponder that question we all ask in a startup: What are we really working for?
The United States and Japan, on the other hand, have a completely different culture. Americans brag about how long it’s been since they took time off. It’s the opposite of the “humble brag”. It’s what I call the “martyr brag.” As in, “I’m such a hard worker and so important, I have to work 60 hours a week. I can’t take vacations or my company will die.” The data backs this up – the U.S. has some of the shortest paid vacation days in the world and most employees don’t even take them!
The standard work week, Then some
The standard 40 hours was set in 1926 by the Ford Motor Company. Then in 1937 the Fair Labor Standards Act passed which standardized the hours by stating that any time over 40 hours was considered overtime.
Tim Ferris popularized the phrase “Four Hour Workweek”, but has admitted he works more than full-time on his many projects. Social media and advertising icon, Gary Vaynerchuk, frequently talks about how important it is to “hustle”, but still finds time to take 7 weeks of vacation yearly. He admitted that productivity decreased when working more than 50 hours a week, but he’ll do it anyway because he loves it.
Entrepreneurs read articles like this one that tell us the tech icons like Zuckerberg, Musk and Gates credit their success to their insane work hours. Musk has often said that working twice as many hours means you can do twice as much as your competition.
The American startup culture is to work yourself ragged. That may be great for the owners, but it doesn’t lead to high worker satisfaction or productivity. I learned that the hard way working around-the-clock as an analyst on Wall Street.
However, science has proven that working long hours is not only less productive, but bad for your health, leading to possible heart disease and stroke.
A better, more productive way
Then we see the European countries enjoying their lives. Sweden recently began a 6 hour workday pilot program and is already having success and the idea is spreading. Even to the U.S.
A company in California has a 5 hour workday and has reported very happy employees (duh), but also increases in productivity. To keep employees focused during those 5 hours, everyone is banned from social media and meetings are kept to a minimum (finally!).
There are many benefits to a shorter work week: better health, more focus, increased job satisfaction and it sure makes it easier to recruit high-end talent.
The key for any company or freelancer to make sure those shorter hours count is to measure results, not time spent. Most companies focus on punching the clock and not the actual output. As management guru, Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured, gets managed”, so measure what’s important.
It’s not likely governments like Sweden or the U.S. will be able to mandate shorter workdays, which is good, but it’s something for startups to seriously consider if they want to build a strong, productive and happy workforce.