A small but impassioned group of psychologists and business academics have begun to make a plea for changing the daily working routine — away from the ethics of the nerds and geeks of Silicon Valley and toward common industrial sense. “Bring back the 40 hour working week” is the way that one summarizes it.

In an emotionally charged article on AlterNet, Sara Robinson claims, “The single, easiest, fastest thing your company can do to boost its output and profits — starting right now, today — is to get everybody off the 55-hour a week treadmill and back onto a 40-hour (working week) footing.”

She has also got academic backing. professor Teresa Amabile, the Edsel Bryant Ford professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and a director of research there, also compares modern working life to a treadmill and says that good managers must do more to take their workers off it to release their energy and innovation.

“Often, it would be better to do less,” she told a recent issue of Harvard Gazette. Other studies have given indirect support, with findings that long work hours and the consequent sleep deprivation mean that tired workers tend to behave like drunks on the job.

Robinson gives some of the historical background to the 40-hour week, pressures for which started in the U.K. and U.S. in the early 19th century: “While it was the unions that pushed it, business leaders ultimately went along with it because their own data convinced them that this was a solid, hard-nosed business decision.”

In 1848, the British parliament passed the 10-hours law, and output per worker, per day went up. In the 1890s, American employers tried the eight-hour day and found that output per worker increased. Frederick W. Taylor, the 20th century originator of “scientific management” prescribed reduced work times and achieved remarkable increases in output per worker.

Henry Ford, founder of the car company, took one of the most radical moves when he doubled workers’ pay and cut the shifts in Ford’s plants from nine hours to eight. Business boomed as more workers were able to afford cars. Ford was also aware of another important economic fact of life that modern business and politicians have forgotten — that economies are shared adventures, not businesses for and by the rich.

Economic studies done by the hundreds from the 1930s to the 1950s showed that industrial workers have a good eight hours work a day in them and that going on for 10 hours produces no more widgets than eight hours. Detailed analyses show that workers are most productive between the second and sixth hour at work.

In addition, industrial accidents are more likely to occur when workers are tired. Such accidents could be catastrophically anti-productive because they are liable to disable workers, damage equipment, shut down production, open the company to lawsuits, and hurt shareholders as the stock price falls.

Studies during the 1980s showed that there was an exception to the sanity of the 40-hour working week. The Business Roundtable found that for a short period, say to meet a critical production deadline for Christmas or New Year sales, you could get gains by going to a 60- or even 70-hour week.

But a 50 percent increase in working hours did not produce a 50 percent rise in output. Indeed, daily productivity started to fall off in the second week and fell rapidly with every successive week.

After eight weeks of 60-hours, the decline in productivity was so marked that the company would have been better off sticking to the regular 40-hour week. The other downside of extra hours is that it takes workers time to recover to get back to their daily productive routine for a 40-hour week.

But this is all about production line workers, who have to exert themselves physically by swinging a hammer or heaving bricks or loads. Isn’t it different for white-collar desk workers, whose gray cells must be stimulated by constant mental activity?

Actually, no, argues Sara Robinson. “Research shows knowledge workers actually have fewer good hours in a day than manual laborers do — on average, about six hours, as opposed to eight.”

She suggests examining your own working day, which probably consists of five or six hours of hard mental work then two to three hours answering emails, making telephone calls, going to meetings: “You can stay longer if your boss asks, but after six hours, all he’s really got left is a butt in a chair. Your brain has clocked out and gone home.”

In addition, knowledge workers are sensitive to sleep loss. Studies by the U.S. military show that loss of one hour of sleep a night will lead to a level of cognitive degradation equivalent to a 0.10 blood alcohol level. That’s pretty drunk, but worse still, workers in this state don’t understand that their ability is impaired.

Why and how was the old wisdom forgotten? Robinson, ignoring Japan, where overwork to extreme levels led to cases of karoshi (death from overwork), cites the emergence of the Silicon Valley culture populated by geeks whose only existence was work and the praise by management guru Tom Peters of the “excellence” of the valley work ethic.

Managers forgot workers were human and measured their performance by a simple metric, willingness to spend your entire life in the office.

Then came Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the bashing of trade unions and the cult of the entrepreneur as the hope of the economy.

Microsoft and Macintosh led the way with “churn ’em and burn ’em,” the practice of working young programmers until they dropped. “Working 90 hours a week and loving it,” read an early Mac T-shirt, but the truth is that the first Apple might have appeared a year earlier if the company had not worked its programmers so hard.

In Japan, of course, the cult of overwork was developed long ago when Silicon Valley was known simply as the Santa Clara Valley. The deadly consequences of karoshi were documented in 1969 with the death from stroke of a 29-year-old man.

Even so, Japanese companies such as Taisho Pharmaceutical developed “health drinks,” fortified with vitamins and extra caffeine, to enable people to work long hours without flagging. In the 1980s, popular Japanese television advertisements boasted that workers boosted by energy drinks could work round the clock without physical or mental fatigue.

Hollywood film star Arnold Schwarzenegger was enlisted to play the genie, who burst out of the drink bottle in one ad. In another, a besuited and booted executive flew round the world signing deals and proclaiming, “Can you fight for 24 hours a day? Businessman, businessman, Japanese businessman!”

Karoshi and the associated karojisatsu — or suicide prompted by overwork — continue to be a problem in Japan, with more than 100 cases a year of karoshi and 60-plus cases a year of karojisatsu being diagnosed through the last decade. Belatedly leading Japanese companies have begun to seek a better work-life balance.

Toyota Motor limits overtime to an average of 30 hours a month. Other companies have “no overtime” days. But the Japanese dedication to work works against easy change. Mitsubishi UFJ Trust and Banking started to let its workers go home up to three hours early to care for children or elderly relatives: Two years later, only 34 of 7,000 workers had signed up for the program.

Japanese workers regularly work extra overtime but do not record it, in defiance of the law and good sense. It is high time that Japan joined the rest of the world.

Harvard professor Amabile has a micro-perspective. She urges that good managers will take their staff off the treadmill regularly. The single most important thing for a manager is “protecting at least 30 to 60 minutes each day for yourself and your people that’s devoted to quiet reflection.”

Kevin Rafferty was executive editor of the Indian Express newspaper group.

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