The 35-Hour Workweek: How Effective Is it Really?

Tobey Maguire in Spider-Man

Do you feel like achieving everything that’s required of you at work in 35 hours would be a miracle of the order of turning water into wine? Or are you so super humanly productive that you can cram it all into a mere four hours? It’s an idea that is sufficiently appealing, and one that Tim Ferriss has managed to top bestseller lists for some years now by claiming he can teach us mere mortals how to get work over with by lunch time Monday and then kick back and relax.

Since the hard-won 40-hour workweek was created to ensure that workers during the industrial revolution were able to have some downtime, there has been a continual debate about the number of hours we should work per week to achieve optimal productivity. The predictions that we would all be working only a handful of hours per week, à la Tim Ferriss, while the robots take over the hard work from us, have been around for decades, but we still find ourselves tackling that commute five days a week, regardless.

There have been attempts to change the norm, however. France’s famous 35-hour workweek, which was implemented in 2000 by the left of centre government of the time, has recently come under fire as more companies and individuals abandon this great experiment. Whether it never really worked, or has simply served its purpose and run its course, will be debated by the history books for years to come – by the time the experts have figured out which it was, we might have some labour-reducing robots to help us out at last.

Here we review some of the pros and cons of the system which sees average working hours limited to 35 per week.

1. It's unenforceable

Total RecallTardis

The law in France intended to set an average working pattern of 35 hours per week doesn’t seem to have done the job. In reality, the legislation was complex at best, with some workers clocking in a rigid work pattern and others negotiating time off in lieu for working above the required hours.

The average number of hours worked, by those working in fulltime positions was actually 39.5 per week, according to figures from 2013 as reported in La Tribune [in French]. Overall, the number of hours worked in France on a weekly basis, including both those working full and part-time patterns, exceeded the averages of other European countries. That is partly because the average part-time worker in France worked more hours than the average part-time worker elsewhere, bringing up the average sharply and making for a smaller difference between full and part-time working arrangements.

It seems, from the French experience, that enforcing a limit to working hours via the law is very difficult indeed. Does that mean that the 35-hour working week can never be effective?

2. It does not reduce unemployment

So if the cap on working hours is hard to enforce, does it at least bring some benefits to the society at large?

One of the reasons that the 35-hour workweek was initially proposed in France was to reduce unemployment. By limiting the number of hours each individual works, there would be a requirement for more people, creating more jobs and reducing overall unemployment.

The renewed scrutiny of the 35-hour working week that has been triggered by disputes at the Électricité de France (EDF) has prompted claims that the 35-hourweek made no difference whatsoever to the unemployment figures in France. It has, however, highlighted the fact that the workers of France are among the most productive in Europe, despite situations such as that of the EDF where workers clock up an impressive 10 weeks’ holiday a year to make up for exceeding the 35 maximum weekly hours.

3. Shorter hours make us happy

The Great GatsbyPlayBuzz

So the French attempt at limiting working weeks actually resulted in businesses rewarding workers with more holiday entitlement rather than sticking to the rules on a day-to-day basis. But reducing working hours is certainly a great idea in theory.

A 2013 report by the New Economics Foundation concluded that working shorter hours would leave people better able to balance their work and personal commitments, and ultimately be happier. A working week of around 30 hours was proposed as the ideal to shoot for, although others have argued that 21 hours a week is the ideal number.

By achieving better balance, the theory goes, employees are happier and therefore more likely to be motivated during the time that they are in work. It is also known that people who work fewer hours tend to take less sick time, are more motivated, and therefore more productive. Cutting unplanned absence is a big thing, as the ripple effect of high levels of sickness absence can be very damaging to productivity.

4. Shorter hours are better for business

For some people, even outside France, the 35-hour working week (or even less) is already a reality. In some cases, this is negotiated as a flexible working arrangement and might mean that employees work their hours over four days instead of five.

This can limit the number of days that employees need to commute, making life easier and cheaper for them, as well as giving an additional day to spend with family and friends. The knock-on effect of compressed hours can also benefit in other ways. There would be fewer cars on the roads, less pressure on public transport, and companies would require fewer desks and could move to a hot desking system to accommodate more flexibility in working patterns. Workers could take reduced hours instead of pay rises, limiting salary costs for the business. By reducing overheads in this way, a compressed 35-hour week could improve business productivity and profitability, and make it very effective indeed.

Perhaps the main conclusion to be drawn is that working fewer hours on average can help individual employees optimise their efficiency and also find a good balance between home and work life. But 35 is not actually a magic number. With estimates of how much work would be best for us, ranging from just a few hours a week (where we would have to deal with the issue of having too much leisure time, according to John Maynard Keynes, who first predicted this) to the French 35-hour workweek, the only thing that is clear is that working to a point of exhaustion on a regular basis is good for no one.

Particularly in jobs requiring creativity and concentration, and where health and safety can be compromised if exhaustion causes poor judgement, limiting working hours is a no-brainer. But picking a one size fits all number and attempting to enforce it through employment legislation is not the way forward. Encouraging employees to negotiate for additional paid time off instead of pay rises, educating businesses about flexible working and how changing schedules can positively impact the running of their operation in out-of-the-box ways, and allowing the evolution of shorter working patterns might be a better option.

What do you think? Would you prefer a 35-hour workweek? Let us know in the comments section below!