The eight-hour workday was once a socialist’s dream come true. An American legacy from the first Industrial Revolution, it was intended to protect workers. At this time, workers were exploited into grueling 12-hour or 14-hour workdays while being poorly compensated. In 1940, Congress actually set the American workweek at 40 hours, based on this model.
On the surface, it’s a lovely idea—and protecting workers and regular people is an important set of values to have. However, many people were forced to work from home during the past almost-two-years-now of the COVID-19 pandemic. And we realized: maybe we’ve been overdoing it.
As a TikToker known as “AutisticCommProf” recently pointed out, the “8 hours for work, 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for what you will” slogan was used by the Labor movement in 1800s America.
And we haven’t really been following it very well in contemporary society. More to the point, even if we did, it wouldn’t work. The professor explains further, in an enlightening video monologue:
In her video, she makes reference to this tweet:
Both point out that, with the way our society approaches the concept of an “eight-hour workday,” it’s much longer. And, it destroys our ability to care for ourselves and our families. We are devoting closer to 12 hours a day to work.
We then feel exhausted and “unproductive” when we can’t balance our working lives and our actual lives more evenly. And, as much recent research reveals and reinforces, our brains are only capable of productively focusing on work tasks (or almost any tasks) for approximately five hours.
Most jobs today also involve remaining seated for at least eight hours at a time. On the surface, it sounds like the ability to rest would be a good thing. However, there is an increasingly prevalent belief that “sitting is the new smoking”—as in, it’s not very good for our bodies.
Even those with standing desks aren’t getting the varieties of movement that the human body really needs. In that regard, those whose work requires manual labor are pretty fortunate. They’re often getting more of a healthy level of activity during their workday.
Sitting for such lengthy periods of time is now thought to diminish focus and energy—even willpower. This may be why those who are very sedentary for work will often select unhealthy foods for themselves.
Treats are a form of self-care, often relieving stress and monotony. Unfortunately, consuming high volumes of “treat” food while remaining sedentary and stressed out has been pretty thoroughly linked to high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems.
Breaking up the workday in different ways might lead to a healthy version of a “second wind” at work, though. We might be able to work eight hours a day in a healthy way, with breaks for meditation and/or exercise. But it’s evident that something has to change in order for our society to regain its mental and physical health.