Gaining Peak Productivity: The Evolution of the 40-Hour Workweek

Gaining Peak Productivity: The Evolution of the 40-Hour Workweek

This article was updated on August 29, 2018.

Does the standard 40-hour, five-day workweek result in peak productivity for employees? It's a long-debated question with conflicting answers. When seeking to define the optimal number of hours per week to gain peak productivity, the only realistic answer is that it depends.

It's known that work time and productivity are subject to the law of diminishing returns, meaning that after working a certain number of hours, people get tired and become less productive. People aren't machines, and even machines need down time for regular maintenance and repairs. Productivity is also highly individualized.

So how did we get the standard 40-hour workweek, anyway?

The 40-Hour Workweek and Henry Ford

Henry Ford made history on multiple fronts, such as helping to develop the modern assembly line and taking a data-driven approach to measuring employee productivity. But in 1926, Ford really shocked the U.S. economic landscape when he ordered his workers to cut their hours to 40 per week, creating the standard 8-hour work day, according to He expected this change to help his workers be fresher, work harder and be more productive per hour — and it worked. The 40-hour workweek was standardized across the U.S. in 1940, when Congress updated the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, notes Business Insider.

Henry Ford was a pioneer because he actually accepted that there are limits on human productivity. Ford's shortened workweek allowed his employees to rest more and spend more time with family.

Work Hours and Productivity

Who are the most productive workers in the world? According to Premiere Global Services, Inc (PGi), German workers are most productive, followed by the French and finally the U.S. as the third most productive workers.

But the average German workweek is 35 hours, reports PGi. And the people who worked the most, Koreans, actually rank near the bottom in hourly productivity. "Productivity aside, employees with shorter work hours are more loyal and suffer less stress and illness," says PGi. "They also tend to be more productive, hour-for-hour."

What HR Leaders Can Do to Optimize Productivity

Begin by complying with labor laws wherever you operate. Cultural norms around productivity and work-life balance will also be relevant for your international employee engagement strategies. That may mean supporting employees with more technology or training.

Working within the confines of regulatory compliance and acceptance of cultural norms, how can you move toward peak productivity? Henry Ford was on to something. Use your performance and HCM data to track, measure and report on employee productivity. Have a platform in place that can provide the data you need and then use that data to make decisions related to how to optimize productivity per hour. Localization, customization and even personalization will likely work far better than any global standardization.