Australian Study Shows Six-Hour Workday to be Optimal
From: Human Resource Executive Online (

Although a recent Australian study suggests long workdays threaten employees' well-being, personal ambitions and workplace competition among American workers make a shortened workday unlikely in the United States.

By Barbara Worthington

THE RELENTLESS PURSUIT OF career goals and job satisfaction that dominates the lives of the committed workforce may actually be the source of workers' physical decline, according to a study by Dr. Caroline West of Sydney University, published in the /Australian Law Reform Commission Journal/.

"We've structured our lives so the majority of our waking life is devoted to work, which might bring us more money but doesn't make us more fulfilled," West says in a recent article in the /Sydney Morning Herald/. "So long as there's a trend to work these really long hours you'll continue to see the plateauing and decline of people's well-being."

While workplace success delivers self-esteem, income and social ties, workdays in excess of six hours result in anxiety, exhaustion and a poor quality of life, West is quoted as saying.

In light of her findings based on her analysis of a number of studies over the past several years, West says a six-hour workday could combat the difficulties encountered because of the trend toward extended workdays she finds pervasive among Australian workers, according to the newspaper. She says nearly one-third of Australian full-time workers work more than 48 hours a week and 30 percent work 50 or more hours.

"It's going to require a lot of structural reform, but I think the time is ripe for addressing it as an issue,'' West says of the proposed six-hour workday. "I don't see any reason why it can't realistically happen."

While it may or may not be realistic for Australia, such a workplace trend is unlikely to take hold in the United States. "We tend to work more hours than a lot of the industrialized world," says Terry Beehr, professor of organizational psychology at Mount Pleasant, Mich.'s Central Michigan University. "I don't see any trend going away from that."

Any possibility of a reduction in the length of workdays would be dependent upon "the nature of the job and the demographics," according to George Faulkner, a principal at Mercer Human Resource Consulting's health and benefits practice in Princeton, N.J.

Faulkner says professionals view a job as a career and "something really fulfilling" while some employees who are "just earning a paycheck" may opt for a minimum number of hours "as long as they can maintain the standard of living they want."

Some Australian workers would resist a shortened day as well, according to West. Her study indicates that even though a shorter workday would improve well-being and quality of life, workplace competitiveness and individual focus on getting ahead in one's career would make workers unlikely to work fewer hours each day.

If it did come to pass, however, West suggests a four- to six-hour workday, first touted in the early 1900s by economist John Maynard Keynes, would even improve productivity. Beehr disagrees, saying reduced hours are "not likely to mean greater productivity." However, he does say that by the end of shifts, workers are typically less productive.

"With a long concentrated period of time to work on something, you can get a lot more done rather than doing it piecemeal," Faulkner says. "A lot of it is just a financial decision," he says. If workers' salaries or number of hours are reduced, "They can't afford to do that."

Faulkner says many companies currently perceive a generational difference in how people view their work. "The younger generation does value their leisure time more," he says. "They don't necessarily want to get rich; they'd rather have the time."

It's important to strike a balance with work and non-work activities such as exercise, rest, hobbies and community service, Faulkner says. "Some people who work very long hours sacrifice some other things."

In the United States, there continues to be increasing interest in part-time work and "phased retirement," Faulkner says. "Overall there is a need for more flexibility" in structuring work scenarios, he says.

*August 21, 2006*