40 Hour Workweek History

By: | Updated: January 09, 2024

You found our guide on the 40 hour workweek history.

A 40 hour workweek refers to the standard number of hours an employee has to work in a full-time job during a typical workweek. Examples include traditional 9 to 5, four-day workweek, and flexible hours. The purpose of the 40 hour workweek is to improve work-life balance, increase productivity, and boost job satisfaction.

This topic is related to the four-day workweek. This concept is also a form of time management best practices.


This article includes:

  • history of the 40 hour workweek
  • who started the 40 hour workweek
  • history of the 9 to 5 workday
  • what are the benefits of the 40 hour workweek
  • 40 hour workweek schedule examples

Here we go!

History of the 40 hour workweek

The history of the 40 hour workweek spans several decades, and it was not always the standard. During the mid-1800s, when the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, working conditions were incredibly challenging. Individuals often found themselves working over 80 hours per week, with some in industries like transportation and manufacturing even clocking in more than 100 hours. The National Labor Union attempted to convince Congress to pass a law enforcing an eight-hour workday, but their efforts did not succeed.

In 1926, Henry Ford was a pioneer in adopting the 40 hour workweek within his company. He recognized that pushing workers to work longer hours led to reduced productivity. The 40 hour workweek became an official government policy during the Great Depression as a response to high unemployment rates. The idea was that by shortening the workweek, companies would need to hire more workers to maintain productivity levels.

When wondering who started the 40 hour workweek, it is important to consider legislation. A significant shift occurred in 1938 with the Fair Labor Standards Act. This act initially reduced the workweek to 44 hours, and then a subsequent amendment in 1940 trimmed it down further to 40 hours. This amendment also introduced the concept of overtime pay for those who worked more than 40 hours. Since 1940, the standard full-time workweek has been set at 40 hours, and this remained the case until recent times.

The Evolution of the 40 Hour Workweek Model

Examining the history of the 9 to 5 workday reveals its roots in a time when technology and desk jobs were far less common. Back then, work hours were tethered to physical capabilities, as the availability of physical labor dictated the length of the workday. Fast forward to today, machines and technology have revolutionized work efficiency. This progress has unlocked the potential for remote work, allowing tasks to be accomplished from various locations.

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes made a prediction that might connect to our modern understanding of work hours. He foresaw a future where his grandchildren would work only 15 hours per week, an idea that seemed radical at the time. Keynes observed a surge in industrial growth during that era and foresaw the potential for more streamlined work practices.

Keynes’s prediction rested on a simple premise. As workers earned an income sufficient to meet their needs and desires, they would naturally opt to reduce their work hours in favor of leisure. This scenario, he believed, would allow employees to lead comfortable lives with as few as two to three working days each week.

Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand company, took a tangible step in this direction in March and April of 2018. The firm conducted an experiment involving 240 employees, reducing their work hours from 40 to 32 hours per week while maintaining their regular pay. The outcomes of the study provided compelling evidence for the feasibility of a four-day workweek. Notably, the study uncovered a significant 24 percent improvement in work-life balance among employees, coupled with a 7 percent decrease in overall stress levels. This study aligns interestingly with Keynes’s early prediction and sheds light on the modern-day potential of adjusting work hours for a more balanced and effective workforce.

Advocacy for Changes to Work Hours

Advocacy for changing work hours from the traditional 40 hour workweek to alternative models has gained traction in recent years. The push for such changes stems from factors like technological advancements, evolving work dynamics, and a growing emphasis on employee well-being.

The Four-Day Workweek

One of the prominent models gaining attention is the four-day workweek. This approach condenses the standard 40 hours into four longer workdays, giving employees an additional day off each week. Advocates argue that this shift can lead to improved work-life balance, reduced stress, and increased employee satisfaction. Furthermore, the extra day off can allow individuals to pursue personal interests, spend more time with family, and recharge, contributing to better overall mental health.

Flexible Work Hours

Another model under consideration is the concept of flexible work hours. Instead of adhering to set schedules, employees are free to choose when they work as long as they meet their required hours. This approach recognizes that productivity is not solely tied to specific hours and allows individuals to tailor their work schedules to peak productivity times. Flexible work hours also accommodate various personal commitments, such as childcare or medical appointments, enhancing employee engagement and loyalty.

The Rise of Remote Work

Remote work is also reshaping the traditional workweek. Many organizations are adopting hybrid work models, where employees split their time between the office and remote work. This flexibility eliminates the need for daily commutes, offering employees more control over their time and reducing stress associated with traffic and transportation.

Benefits of Alternative Work Models

Proponents of these alternative work models highlight several potential benefits. Enhanced work-life balance can lead to reduced burnout and increased job satisfaction. These benefits, in turn, can boost employee retention and attract top talent. Ultimately, these schedules benefit organizations in terms of productivity and innovation.

Challenges and Considerations

Putting new work models into place requires careful planning and consideration of company culture, communication strategies, and potential drawbacks. Employers must find ways to maintain team cohesion, ensure effective communication, and measure employee performance without relying solely on traditional work-hour metrics.

The Future of Work

The nature of work will continue to evolve, and organizations should prioritize employee well-being and engagement. Thus, the advocacy for changing work hours from the standard 40 hour workweek to more flexible and balanced models will likely persist. Balancing the needs of both employers and employees while adapting to changing circumstances will be key in successfully transitioning to these alternative work arrangements.

What are the benefits of the 40 hour workweek?

The standard 40 hour workweek offers a range of potential benefits that can positively impact individuals and organizations. Many countries have embraced this model as a departure from the longer workdays and weeks that characterized the Industrial Revolution. Outlined below are some key benefits commonly associated with a 40 hour workweek.

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1. Enhanced Work-Life Balance

Shortening the workweek offers an improved work-life balance, granting individuals more time for personal pursuits, family engagements, and leisure activities. This shift can reduce stress and prevent burnout, contributing to higher job satisfaction and increased productivity. This balance between work and personal life enhances overall well-being.

2. Elevated Productivity

Research has consistently shown a link between extended work hours and decreased productivity. Adhering to a 40 hour workweek has the potential to enhance employees’ performance by maintaining their focus and engagement. By creating a specific timeframe for work, individuals are more likely to maximize their productivity within that period.

3. Positive Impact on Physical and Mental Health

Prolonged work hours can take a toll on both physical and mental health, leading to heightened stress levels, sleep deprivation, and increased susceptibility to mental health challenges. Including two full days of rest within a 40 hour workweek can significantly contribute to the overall well-being of individuals. These days off are even more effective when they are consecutive.

4. Opportunities for Personal Growth and Development

One notable advantage of a standard workweek is the increased availability of time for personal growth, skill development, and pursuing hobbies. This additional time for self-improvement can contribute to higher levels of employee satisfaction and engagement. Firms can even use some of their in-office time to contribute to employee growth efforts.

5. Lower Carbon Footprint

A shorter workweek can yield significant environmental benefits. Reducing commuting time leads to decreased carbon emissions, curbing pollution caused by transportation. Thus, fewer working hours means less resource utilization.

6. Enhanced Accountability

Standardized work schedules foster accountability by setting clear expectations regarding employees’ work hours. Transitioning away from traditional schedules might lead to lowered commitment and diligence. Some may opt for alternative schedules, such as working 10 hours a day for four days, but maintaining the conventional 9 to 5 schedule can promote higher accountability.

7. Improved Communication

The establishment of set work schedules promotes effective communication among team members. Consistent schedules enhance availability, facilitating better collaboration and making it easier to exchange ideas and address questions. This consistent structure can boost overall workplace communication and productivity.

8. Increased Flexibility

Adopting a 40 hour workweek provides employees with an optimal balance between structured work hours and flexibility. This approach allows for planned activities outside of work, contributing to a healthier work-life integration. Employees can adjust their schedules to attend appointments, events, or personal commitments without disrupting productivity.

9. Enhanced Job Satisfaction and Retention

A 40 hour workweek can improve job satisfaction and retention rates by giving employees a sense of predictability and control over their time. Knowing that individuals have ample time for relaxation and personal interests beyond work fosters a positive relationship between employees and their roles. Therefore, employees have more loyalty toward their roles and are less likely to leave.

40 hour workweek schedule examples

The 40 hour workweek, widely adopted in various countries and industries, has undergone several adaptations. The variations account for shifts in business environments, the preferences of employees, and technological advancements. ​The following are examples of 40 hour workweek schedules.

1. Four-Day Workweek

In recent years, the four-day workweek has gathered significant interest. This alternative schedule condenses the traditional five-day workweek into four days while maintaining the same total work hours. Employees complete their weekly hours over four days, leading to a daily workload of 10 hours.

The extended weekend can enhance employee morale and work-life equilibrium. However, longer daily shifts may have downsides. This approach could result in fatigue and might not suit businesses requiring consistent operation over five days.

2. Rotating Shifts

Rotating shifts involve employees regularly alternating between different shifts, such as day, evening, and night shifts. This schedule variation lets businesses maintain continuous operations.

Essential for firms with round-the-clock demands like hospitals or security services, rotating shifts ensure constant coverage. However, the disruption in sleep patterns due to frequent shifts can impact employee well-being and personal relationships. When using a rotating shift model, it is best to keep the same employees on night or day teams so they can develop a consistent schedule.

3. Conventional 9-to-5 Schedule

This well-established arrangement is a time-honored standard. Employees typically work five days a week, from Monday to Friday, with working hours beginning at 9 a.m. and concluding at 5 p.m. A one-hour lunch break is included.

The predictability of this structure fosters consistent teamwork and collaboration. However, its rigidity may not accommodate the unique productivity rhythms of certain individuals and can occasionally challenge the pursuit of a harmonious work-life balance.

4. Flextime: Flexible Hours

Flextime offers employees greater control over their work hours. This arrangement lets employees set their start and end times as long as they fulfill their required work hours.

This approach acknowledges individual peak productivity times and personal commitments within the work framework. By accommodating these factors, organizations can boost employee satisfaction. However, coordinating efforts among team members may present challenges with this schedule.

5. Alternating Workdays

An alternative to the standard schedule is alternating workdays. This approach divides the workweek into distinct shifts that alternate between two groups of employees. For instance, one group works Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, while the other works Tuesday and Thursday.

This method ensures continuous coverage while providing employees with longer periods of time off. However, coordinating tasks and communication between alternating groups may require careful planning.

Adopting a 40 hour workweek

If your company is looking to transition to using a 40 hour workweek, then you may be interested in the following steps.

1. Assessment and Planning

Companies seeking to adopt a 40-hour workweek should begin with an in-depth assessment of their existing work structure and operational requirements. This evaluation will help determine if the transition is feasible and what changes may be necessary to ensure a smooth shift. Planning is crucial and involves setting clear objectives and allocating resources to support the transition. Companies should consider potential challenges and develop strategies to address them ahead of time.

2. Employee Input

Involving employees in the decision-making process is essential. Conducting surveys or holding open discussions is a great way to gauge employee preferences, concerns, and expectations. When employees have a voice in transitioning to a 40 hour workweek, they are more likely to feel valued and motivated to adapt to the new model. Staff input can provide valuable insights into how the change will affect their work and personal lives.

3. Trial Period

Before implementing a 40 hour workweek permanently, many organizations find it beneficial to introduce a trial period or pilot program. This step allows companies to test the new model, make necessary adjustments, and gather employee feedback. The trial period offers a low-risk way to fine-tune the transition plan based on real-world experiences, ensuring a smoother transition.

4. Flexible Scheduling

To meet various employee needs, companies can consider offering flexible scheduling options. This step might include staggered start times, compressed workweeks, and telecommuting opportunities. Providing flexibility can help employees better balance work and personal commitments with the new structure.

5. Workload Management

Managing workloads within a 40-hour workweek ensures that teams can complete tasks efficiently. Companies may need to reassess priorities, delegate responsibilities, and streamline processes. Providing employees with the tools and support they need to manage their tasks effectively is key to success.

6. Performance Metrics

Tracking performance is important to measure the impact of the 40 hour workweek model. Companies can use key performance indicators to monitor productivity, employee satisfaction, and other essential outcomes. These metrics offer valuable insights and help companies make data-driven decisions as they adapt to the new work structure.

7. Wellness and Work-Life Balance

Supporting employee wellness and work-life balance is a key consideration in implementing a 40 hour workweek. Companies can introduce wellness programs, flexible leave policies, and mental health resources to promote employee well-being. Recognizing the importance of a healthy work-life balance enhances employee morale and productivity.

8. Training and Development

To help employees thrive in a 40-hour workweek, companies should provide ongoing training and development opportunities. This step can include skill-building programs and career development initiatives. Supporting employees in their professional growth ensures they remain competitive and adaptable in a shorter workweek.

9. Potential Challenges

Companies should be prepared for potential challenges that may arise during the transition to a 40 hour workweek. These challenges can include resistance to change, employee morale issues, and adjustments to workflow. Developing strategies to overcome these obstacles will be vital for a smooth transition.

10. Regular Evaluation

A commitment to continuous evaluation is crucial for organizations adopting a 40 hour workweek. It is important to gather ongoing feedback from employees. Firms should assess the impact of the new work structure on productivity, job satisfaction, and overall well-being. Regular reviews let companies make necessary adjustments and improvements to ensure the long-term success of the 40 hour workweek model.


The 40-hour workweek is a basic structure, but its use can differ based on a company’s needs and what employees like. When businesses look at the benefits and detriments of different approaches, it helps them make schedules that work best for all employees.

Remember, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Adapting to new work methods and using technology is important in today’s changing economy. Companies have to carefully plan how they hire and keep employees to be successful.

Next, check out these lists of books on time management and productivity tips. You can also learn about the history of team building.

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FAQ: 40 hour workweek history

Here are answers to frequently asked questions about the 40 hour workweek history.

What is the 40 hour workweek?

The 40 hour workweek is a standard work schedule in which an employee works 40 hours per week. Flexible schedules allow employees to work more efficiently and prioritize completing tasks instead of monitoring rigid work hours.

What are the benefits of the 40 hour workweek?

Some benefits of the 40 hour workweek include increased employee satisfaction, lower carbon footprint, and a more balanced work-life equilibrium. Another important benefit is improved physical and mental well-being, often due to more flexible work schedules.

What are 40 hour workweek schedule examples?

Some examples include a four-day workweek, flexible hours, and a compressed workweek. For organizations requiring round-the-clock operations, rotating shifts are much more prevalent.

Author avatar


People & Culture Director at teambuilding.com.
Grace is the Director of People & Culture at teambuilding.com. She studied Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, Information Science at East China Normal University and earned an MBA at Washington State University.


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