Challenging the Eight-Hour Workday in Freelancing

by | Oct 29, 2015 | Freelancing, Remote work, Startups

Two generations ago, our grandparents wouldn’t have even contemplated the abolition of the traditional eight-hour workday. It was the norm to spend several years, perhaps even an entire career, at the same company, with benefits and pensions to boot. There was a time to arrive, a time to leave, and those hours were respected; never challenged; hardly ever changed. Even 20 years ago, personal time and professional time were, for all intents and purposes, cut and dried as two separate threads of life.

When my grandfather left his factory job at 4 PM, he was done—I mean finished, until 7 AM. He was afforded several hours in the evening to spend with family and friends, and was off on weekends. Holidays were paid and he spent them with his loved ones. No one called him to complete work outside his eight-hour day. Obviously, there was no way to email him, either. It was predictable, simple, perhaps even enjoyable. Without cell phones, tablets, or laptops, punching out was mentally, physically, and emotionally punching out. There was balance.

In today’s interconnected (and always connected) world, it’s easy to get caught up in the minutiae of professional life at nearly every waking moment, whether we are at our desks or not.

Taking Two Back

In September, Sweden announced their shift to a six-hour workday, intending to study the benefits of the decreased hours in the process. Sweden chose to accept and work with facts that we often ignore—too much stress and pressure can turn into health issues, and along with added stress, your risk of stroke and heart disease increases, too.

For today’s American worker, is the eight-hour day still viable? Does it make still make sense – and if not, what’s next?

The Advent of the Eight-Hour American Workday

Shortly after the Civil War, a few US eight-hour-workday laws were put on the books. They weren’t well enforced, though, and in the 1870s, working 10 to 12 hour days was commonplace. In response to the work schedule, a labor movement began, and to keep it short and sweet, the issue came to a head in 1884, when the predecessor of today’s AFL-CIO implemented that all companies should put into effect eight hour days by May 1, 1886.  The tension continued, but the 9-5 schedule remains as American as apple pie.

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, but Fortune Magazine claims that American workers with eight-hour schedules only work about six hours a day, anyway. Between taking care of personal items like appointment setting, online shopping, and cell phone calls, walking around the halls and chatting with colleagues, an estimated one to three hours of the day is shaved away instantly. If employees getting paid to take care of personal tasks, why don’t employers make the day shorter and save money?

Today’s Millennial Workplace Shift

Millennials seem to appreciate a work-life balance much more than past generations, especially equipped with the science of what “all work and no play” does to the mind and body. A shorter workday would be more economical for employers and would give employees more personal time. That is, if they do actually work—but that’s for another conversation!

Combined economic issues, breakneck technology, and corporate competition create a perfect storm that wreaks havoc on the American worker. Concerned with the inequitable distribution of time and work-life balance, millennials are working to take their days back. This includes alternative work styles like remote work and freelancing.

It’s obvious that an eight-hour workday does not inherently, in itself, give a company more of an edge. The real advantage is a team that is focused, refreshed, and optimized.

Productivity vs. Hours Worked

Generally speaking, humans can focus on a task for about an hour and a half to two hours at a time. After that, a break is needed, for 20-30 minutes at a time, in order to be highly productive and recharged for the next task. This is called the Ultradian rhythm.

The key is to stop multitasking and eliminate distractors. That’s productivity—not being in an office for a certain amount of time, or at a desk for a pre-determined amount of hours.

The Solution to the Eight-Hour Workday

Although it is highly unlikely that a major corporate shift in the eight-hour workday will come anytime soon, some working professionals are choosing to put the power back in their own hands by committing to a freelance career or asking for accommodations at their place of work. Moreover, progressive companies like Buffer started their company by nixing the eight-hour workday, focusing on highly-qualified employees that would perform better thanks to a better work-life balance.

Today’s freelancer doesn’t receive benefits, a pension, or a plaque after 10 years, but they do have control over their schedules and their free time as well. The key, even for a small business owner, is staying firmly grounded in the notion that there is a time to work and a time to rest. Without work-life balance, it’s impossible to be truly productive. The solution to the modern eight-hour workday is a shift focused on healthy output, practical achievements, and consideration that balance is absolutely crucial to being a prolific worker.


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92101 CA, San Diego