Why the 9-5 Work Day Is So Tough On Creative Workers

An article in The Atlantic, linked here, explores the ever controversial issue of working the long hours that are becoming the normal expectations of US employers.

This article more specifically focuses on the knowledge worker – people who work in creative or professional jobs – and suggests that an alternative set of expectations is necessary to achieve a higher level of productivity.  Neuroscientist Kenneth Wright suggests that “cognition is best several hours prior to habitual sleep time, and worst near habitual wake time.”  If true, cognitive workers would do their best work later in the day, not first thing in the morning, assuming we are all waking up at relatively the same time.  Wright also suggests it can take up to 4 hours for your mind to work itself up to a state of full awareness and alertness.  Further, cognitive workers tend to be more focused in the late morning, and again in the late afternoon when lung efficiency is at its peak.

So, this begs the questions: why are we working so many hours and what is a better plan?

Data suggests that the knowledge worker can work with high levels of productivity for about 6 hours before experiencing a noticeable decline, vs the 8 hours that manual laborers typically churn out.  In the early 1900’s, Henry Ford took the radical step of doubling pay while reducing shifts from 9hrs to 8hrs/day.  He was wildly criticized for this move until a strange thing happened:  Ford’s business boomed as a result.  Similarly, Kellogg’s began experimenting with a 6hr workday in the 1930’s, which proved to be immensely successful and popular with staff, and lasted until 1985.  Also interesting to note was Kellogg’s employees were happy to work less hours while making more per hour, just like Ford’s, so the company was able to offer more jobs.

Are we suggesting you run into the boss’s office with these articles as proof that you should begin a 6hr work day?  Maybe not, but perhaps the metrics we’re using to measure our output each day should be reexamined.  For example, at Idea Harvest we’re knowledge workers not assembly line workers like Ford’s employees, but we have a similar focus: quality.  Our expectation is that our team puts out a quality product or quality ideas.  If an employee is able to put out exemplary work in a short period of time, great.  If it takes longer some days, fine.  If a project was completed on time or early and the customer is supremely happy, why should I care if that employee only worked 5 or 6hrs that day?  To us the result is all that matters.

–Mike Solow

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