The 8-hour work-day was bitterly won. The history of its development has been a tug of war between the anxiety of bosses eager to get the maximum profit out of their employees and the indignation of workers subjected to inhuman demands and practices. Screeds have been written of this from the angles of politics, ethics, and economics.

But what say science? What is the capacity for human productivity? Is it ethical to push at these boundaries?

A now famous statistic states that the average worker only spends about three hours of their eight-hour work day getting productive work done. The rest of the time, according to the survey which produced this figure, is spent checking the news, discussing work matters with colleagues, discussing non-work matters with colleagues, making hot beverages, etc. These findings are taken from a survey of nearly 2000 British office workers and regurgitated all over the internet ad nauseum (and no wonder, if 47% of British office workers name social media as their biggest procrastinating activity).

As it only apples to office workers, this 3-hour figure should clearly be taken with a grain of salt. More broadly applicable studies from psychology and neurology suggest that there is a ceiling for how long humans can concentrate for. However, that ceiling is not three hours. It’s 20 minutes, at a push.

There are complications in measuring concentration, as a plethora of factors may push individual ability up or down. People concentrate more on tasks they find inherently rewarding, tasks they feel capable of, and tasks they feel unstressed by. People concentrate less well when surrounded by distractions, and when the task is boring, difficult, and unfulfilling.

Studies of how frequently people can expend the effort of concentration over a day, a month, a lifetime; are much more difficult to conduct. Ability to concentrate, like most cognitive abilities, peaks in early adulthood and declines over the lifespan. All the same, factors such as satisfaction, skill, and comfort influence concentration and productivity more than age does.

Concentration aside, the health and wellbeing of workers is improved by shortening the work day. A Swedish study which shortened the length of the work day to 6 hours (and the work week to 30 hours) for all participants found an up to 20% decline in musculoskeletal disorders compared to the same group of participants when they were working for >7 hours a day. The decrease in musculoskeletal issues does not match linearly with the decrease in contact hours, the participants suffered disproportionately less pain than would be expected if the change was due to the simple linear relationship of less time at work means less time to get injured in.

Swedish organisations have conducted a lot of experiment in this line, both formal and informal. Employees from tech entrepreneurs to surgeons have been tested against the thirty-hour work week. The results are fairly unanimous: employees feel better. They are just as productive, if not more so. They are less stressed, they use fewer sick days, and they enjoy their work more. And we all know what happens to concentration when people enjoy their work more …

It’s impossible to draw hard, scientific conclusions on a topic when hard, scientific studies are slow to materialise. A shorter work day is an uncomfortable idea for employers and employees alike when most jobs pay by the hour, which means there isn’t much call for funding. Anecdotally, and based on the research which does exist, the news from the world of the shorter work day should reassure us all in this age of automation. Workers are happier, healthier, and more productive when the work they are expected to do is more quality, less quantity.

Aífe McHugh – Science Editor