Most developed-world denizens take the five-day work week as a given. The very idea of questioning it would be as inconceivable as it is fanciful. (Indeed, in our work-obsessed culture, it would likely brand you a lazy bum by coworkers and superiors alike.)
But as Philip Sopher over at The Atlantic points out, even the seven-day length of the week is an arbitrary invention, let alone the far more recent notion that we should have five days to work and only two to rest.
The roots of the seven-day week can be traced back about 4,000 years, to Babylon. The Babylonians believed there were seven planets in the solar system, and the number seven held such power to them that they planned their days around it. Their seven-day, planetary week spread to Egypt, Greece, and eventually to Rome, where it turns out the Jewish people had their own version of a seven-day week. (The reason for this is unclear, but some have speculated that the Jews adopted this after their exile in Babylon in the sixth century B.C.) At the very latest, the seven-day week was firmly entrenched in the Western calendar about 250 years before Christ was born.
The earliest recorded use of the word “weekend,” Rybczynski notes, occurred in 1879 in an English magazine called Notes and Queries:
In Staffordshire, if a person leaves home at the end of his week’s work on the Saturday afternoon to spend the evening of Saturday and the following Sunday with friends at a distance, he is said to be spending his week-end at So-and-so.
Some 19th-century Britons used the week’s seventh day for merriment rather than for the rest prescribed by scripture. They would drink, gamble, and enjoy themselves so much that the phenomenon of “Saint Monday,” in which workers would skip work to recover from Sunday’s gallivanting, emerged. English factory owners later compromised with workers by giving them a half-day on Saturday in exchange for guaranteed attendance at work on Monday.
It took decades for Saturday to change from a half-day to a full day’s rest. In 1908, a New England mill became the first American factory to institute the five-day week. It did so to accommodate Jewish workers, whose observance of a Saturday sabbath forced them to make up their work on Sundays, offending some in the Christian majority. The mill granted these Jewish workers a two-day weekend, and other factories followed this example. The Great Depression cemented the two-day weekend into the economy, as shorter hours were considered a remedy to underemployment.
Now, it may seem an obvious and trite point that the structure of our week — indeed, how we count and follow time altogether — is a human construct. But it is worth remembering this because, like so many other entrenched traditions, it seems otherwise unchangeable, despite increasing evidence that the realities of 21st century life — namely the end of the dominant industrial order that cemented our current apportionment of time — makes this current framework unnecessary if not inefficient.
There’s reason to believe that a seven-day week with a two-day weekend is an inefficient technology: A growing body of research and corporate case studies suggests that a transition to a shorter workweek would lead to increased productivity, improved health, and higher employee-retention rates.
The five-day workweek might be limiting productivity. A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that those who worked 55 hours per week performed more poorly on some mental tasks than those who worked 40 hours per week. And Tony Schwartz, the author of Be Excellent at Anything, told Harvard Business Review that people work best in intense 90-minute bursts followed by periods of recovery. Taken together, these findings suggest that with the right scheduling of bursts and rests, workers could get a similar amount of work done over a shorter period of time.
Moreover, there’s some anecdotal evidence that a four-day workweek might increase productivity. Google’s Larry Page has praised the idea, even if he hasn’t implemented it. And Jason Fried, the CEO of Basecamp, has his employees work four-day, 32-hour weeks for half of the year. “When you have a compressed workweek, you tend to focus on what’s important. Constraining time encourages quality time, ” he wrote an op-ed in The New York Times. “Better work gets done in four days than in five,” he concluded.
Beyond working more efficiently, a four-day workweek appears to improve morale and well-being. The president of the U.K. Faculty of Public Health told the Daily Mail that a four-day workweek could help lower blood pressure and increase mental health among employees. Jay Love of Slingshot SEO saw his employee-retention rate shoot up when he phased in three-day weekends. Following this line of thought, TreeHouse, an online education platform, implemented a four-day week to attract workers, which has contributed to the company’s growth.
Just as the current five-day arrangement emerged from a gradual and somewhat ad hoc process that was influenced by changing political, economic, religious, and social realities, so should today’s circumstances lead to another restructuring of how we divide our work and leisure time. There is nothing objectively beneficial to requiring almost all workers, across a variety of different specialities and requirement, to follow more or less the same generic schedule.
Nevertheless, despite the mounting evidence that fewer working days (if not hours in total) are beneficial, the “cultural inertia” of our current weekly structure makes it difficult to change. In a corporate culture driven by the ever-more demanding and onerous standards of shareholders, which company wants to be the first that dares reduces working days before its rivals? As long as most people continue to equate more hours with more productivity, the idea of reducing our time at work will appear wishful if not self-serving.
However, given how we got to our present economic framework, I think the passage of time will inevitably bear out the benefits of fewer working days. Then again, we did not get here entirely by accident or happenstance: a fair amount of labor activism also played a significant role, as the forty-hour workweek we also take for granted was the result of pressure by industrial unions fed up with the average 100 hours per week.
What are your thoughts?