It is no surprise that work has a crucial role to play in our mental health. The reality is that long work hours and high-stress environments are putting many of us on an accelerated path to the grave. Society always seems to try to squeeze more and more out of the average worker until there is nothing left. We are approaching a crossroads where the sophistication of technology is growing so much that it may offer the opportunity to change how we work forever.
A recent study examined the impact of work on mental health and tried to determine what the optimum number of hours was for people to work to ensure their best mental health state. If you are reading this article after a tough week at work you may be thinking the answer is zero but no. The reality is that most people need to work a certain amount to have the benefits of identity, status, time use, and a feeling of purpose. People who were unemployed during the study lacked all of these things but even people who chose to leave the workforce to be stay at home parents or to take a year out still were not in the best state of mental health because of their employment status. The truth is people want to work a certain amount to keep busy, socializing with people and to feel important.
The question is how much work is required to satisfy this need? The study found that in men it is just eight hours. Once a man works eight hours a week he feels satisfied that he has done enough and his mental health is positive. For women, it is a little longer, with the average woman requiring 20 hours to reach an ideal state.
Of course, no one is suggesting that we reduce working hours to 20 for women and 8 for men. That would be impossible (and a little unfair). What the study highlights though is that both men and women today are working far too much. The average person works 40 hours a week and it is not a decision that is being made for the benefit of humanity.
In 1926 Ford introduced a standard workweek of 40 hours. Before this time people worked incredibly long hours. Yet after this point, we have stopped making changes. With the advances in technology, we need to examine if we still need to work this many hours and what the benefit really is?
If we changed our attitude from always seeking to earn more per week and instead sought to work fewer hours for the same pay we could have everyone on a 4 day week within the decade. Numerous studies have shown that those who work 4 day weeks are happier and more productive.
Today with the advances of Artificial Intelligence, robotics, and big data many jobs are under threat. The truth is that a high percentage of jobs could be replaced over the next ten years. We have a choice to make on what the future workforce will look like and what we should prioritize. There is a case to be made for shorter working weeks without reduced pay. We could produce as much as we are today if not more, have a happier population and a better quality of life for all.
At some point, we have to take a check of where we are and where we are going and ask is this what we want for our children and our grandchildren? If the answer is no then why don’t we change it. For too long we have simply accepted rules from yesterday as the rules of today. How about for a change we actually decide what the rules should be for tomorrow.