40-Hour Work Week: Its History And Future

Improve employee attendance

The concept of the 40-hour work week has been a cornerstone of labor rights and workplace regulations for decades.

Initially introduced as a progressive reform to protect workers from exploitation and ensure a better work-life balance, the 40-hour workweek has evolved to become a standard practice in many countries worldwide.

In this blog post, we will explore the history, benefits, challenges, and potential future of the 40-hour work week.

40-hour work week

The History of the 40-Hour Work Week

The idea of limiting the number of hours employees could be required to work in a week dates back to the early 19th century.

During the Industrial Revolution, workers often faced grueling schedules, leading to widespread exploitation and poor working conditions.

Most people working in manufacturing had 80-100-hour weeks working between 10 and 16 hours, including children, for 6 days every week. This was bad for their sanity and safety and gave rise to labor strikes requesting to limit the maximum number of working hours.

The fight for shorter work hours gained momentum with the labor movement, culminating in the establishment of the 40-hour work week in the United States through the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

The 40-Hour Work Week Timeline

1817: Welsh manufacturer and labor rights activist Robert Owen coined the phrase ‘Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest’, which became the first step towards a labor reform.

1835: Workers in Philadelphia organized the first general strike in North America, led by Irish coal heavers. Their banners read, From 6 to 6, ten hours work and two hours for meals.

1867: The Chicago labor movement called for the Illinois Legislature to limit workdays to eight hours, according to the Chicago Historical Society. The law was passed but allowed employers to contract with their workers for longer hours. To eliminate this option, Chicago workers went on a strike for an 8-hour day on May 1, 1867.

1868, June 24: The US Congress passed the first eight-hour-day work law for federal employees, which established an eight-hour workday for laborers and mechanics employed by the Federal Government and cut their wages by 20%.

1869: President Ulysses S. Grant issued a National Eight-Hour Law Proclamation declaring that the Government couldn’t reduce wages as a result of the reduction of the workday.

1870s: Private-sector workers pushed for the same rights: they wanted an eight-hour working day without a wage cut.

1884: The US Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions resolved that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886, and that we recommend to labor organizations throughout this jurisdiction that they so direct their laws as to conform to this resolution by the time named.” The same year, Tom Mann formed the Eight Hour League in the UK to pressure the Trades Union Congress to adopt the eight-hour day.

1886, May 1: 350,000 workers nationwide struck and the National Labor Union (NLU), demanded Congress to pass a law mandating the eight-hour workday, which turned into a bombing of a peaceful labor demonstration on May 4, also known as the Haymarket affair. Later, May 1st was picked as International Workers’ Day (or Labor Day or May Day).

1898: The United Mine Workers won an eight-hour day.

1900: The Building Trades Council of San Francisco won an eight-hour day.

1905: The International Typographical Union won an eight-hour work day, and their strike paved the way for similar gains by the other printing unions. The majority of Americans still worked around 12-14 hours per day.

1912: In the 1912 Presidential Election, Teddy Roosevelt’s Progressive Party included eight-hour work days in their campaign.

1914: The Ford Motor Company cut shifts from nine to eight hours daily.

1916: The Adamson Act established an eight-hour working day, with additional overtime pay, for railroad workers.

1926: Henry Ford introduced 40-hour work weeks with five working days with no cut in wages after discovering that 48-hour work weeks yielded only a small increase in productivity that lasted a short period. This discovery inspired other manufacturing companies to adopt the 40-hour work week.

1937: After Franklin D. Roosevelt took the oath in 1933, in the middle of the Great Depression (1929-1939), Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor of his choice, proposed a forty-hour workweek as a part of the New Deal – a set of programs aimed to reform the US financial system.

1938: Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which required employers to pay overtime to all employees who worked more than 44 hours a week. This act was only applied to industries whose combined employment represented about 20% of the US labor force.

1940: The Fair Labor Standards Act was amended to reduce the workweek to 40 hours. Since then, the 40-hour work week has been a U.S. law.

1948: Australia achieved a 40-hour week.

1960s: Canada adopted the 40-hour work week.

1998: In the UK, Working Time Regulations introduced a limit of 40-hour work week for workers under 18 and 48 hours for workers over 18. An 8-hour limit to the working day has never been achieved in the UK. The average working week in the UK is now 42.5 hours.

Pros and Cons of the 40-Hour Work Week

The implementation of the 40-hour work week brought about several benefits for both employees and employers. For workers, it meant more rest, recreation, and family time, leading to improved overall well-being and work-life balance.

On the other hand, some argue that rigid adherence to a set number of hours per week may no longer be practical or necessary. Companies are exploring alternative work arrangements like compressed work weeks, job sharing, and results-based performance evaluations to accommodate diverse needs and preferences.

Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of the 40-hour work week.

40-hour work week benefits:

  • The 40-hour work week provides employees with a reasonable amount of time for rest, personal pursuits, and spending time with family and friends.
  • Limiting the number of hours worked per week makes employees less likely to experience burnout, leading to increased productivity and job satisfaction.
  • Having sufficient time for rest can contribute to better physical and mental health outcomes, reducing the risk of stress-related illnesses.
  • The 40-hour work week offers a consistent schedule, allowing employees to plan their personal lives and commitments around their work hours.
  • In many countries, working beyond the 40-hour limit may qualify employees for overtime pay or additional benefits, providing financial incentives for longer hours.

40-hour work week challenges:

  • Strict adherence to a fixed 40-hour work week may not accommodate individual preferences or personal circumstances, such as childcare responsibilities or pursuing further education.
  • Some jobs may require more time to complete tasks effectively, and a rigid 40-hour work week may result in increased stress and pressure to meet deadlines.
  • Not all employees are equally productive during the same number of hours. For some individuals, reducing the work week while maintaining productivity could lead to increased efficiency.
  • In a globally connected world, businesses may face competition from countries with different work hour standards, potentially affecting productivity and economic competitiveness.
  • Certain industries, such as healthcare or emergency services, often require longer hours due to their work specifics, leading to potential work-life imbalances for employees in these sectors.

The Future of the 40-Hour Work Week

The greatest lesson we need to learn from the history of the 40-hour work week is this: it is not based on any research or best practices. The appearance of machines and factories shifted the focus from agriculture to manufacturing and soon led to a cut in working hours.

A new revolution is taking place nowadays: businesses are moving online, many jobs are getting automated with the use of IT, old jobs are being redesigned, and new jobs emerge every day.
The COVID pandemic allowed us to review work arrangements and develop a positive attitude towards remote working. Is it time to review the number of working hours? Numerous research and real-life examples prove it is!

40-Hour Work Week Stats and Facts

Driveresearch survey showed that though 33% of organizations offer 4-day, 40-hour work weeks, 56% of employees would rather work a 40-hour work week in 4 days instead of 5 days.

77% of workers reported increased productivity when working a 4-day week, and 58% of employees said they would choose a 4-day workweek over a pay raise.

SimpleTexting survey also showed that 95.4% of respondents said they want a four-day work week as they believe that they will be more productive (97%), their mental health would improve (98%). They would accomplish more personal goals and dreams (96%), which can be put up differently as improved satisfaction and well-being.

Moreover, the remote work trend that followed after the pandemic should’ve improved our work-life balance and job satisfaction, but in reality, the burnout rate has increased by 10% (from 34% to 44%) as compared to the previous year, and it is still growing.

Now, let’s look at the day of an average worker. The following data about UK office workers by Vouchercloud reveals that the average number of productive hours equals 2 hours and 23 minutes daily.

One of the key reasons why employees engage in unproductive activities is that they have to sit through 8-hour work days. When they feel tired or unable to focus, they still have to be present at work, so they indulge in procrastination and activities not related to work, which cost businesses money, undermining employees’ mental health and job satisfaction. What if we could reduce the number of working hours to live to work, not work to live?

“One of the biggest failures of how business is set up is that we are measured by how much we work and not by what we accomplish.” — Chris Bailey

So, we’ve come to a point where change is unavoidable!

40-Hour Work Week Alternatives

Employers are growing increasingly open to experimenting with working arrangements and employee benefits to achieve higher productivity, satisfaction, and well-being. It means that in the next few years, we are likely to witness a growing interest in the 40-hour work week alternatives. Here are to name a few:

40-Hour Work Week
Easy to implement
Too rigid
4-Day Work Week
Motivates employees
Complicates schedules coordination
Flexible schedule
Provides autonomy
Creates communication gaps
Remote work
Provides flexibility
Blurs boundaries

The Four-Day Work Week

The four-day work week has gained popularity recently, with companies experimenting with shorter work weeks while maintaining employee productivity.

Longer weekends allow for more personal time. Moreover, with a shorter work week, employees often feel more motivated to complete tasks efficiently, resulting in increased productivity during their working hours.

At the same time, coordinating schedules across departments or teams can become more challenging when employees have different days off.

It’s also important for employers to ensure that workload distribution is fair and manageable within the reduced work week.

Flexible Schedules

Flexible schedules allow employees to choose their own working hours within a set timeframe.

This lets employees align their work hours with personal obligations, such as childcare or pursuing further education.

Empowering employees to determine their own schedules can lead to higher job satisfaction and a sense of ownership over their work. Besides that some individuals may be more productive during certain times of the day, and flexible schedules enable them to work during their most productive hours.

However, coordinating meetings and collaborative efforts as well as maintaining effective communication may become more challenging when employees have varying schedules.

Remote Work

Remote work has become increasingly popular during the COVID pandemic, offering employees the flexibility to work from anywhere.

It eliminates commuting time, which leads to lower carbon emissions and a smaller ecological footprint and provides companies with access to a global talent pool, expanding their options and diversifying their workforce.

Unfortunately, separating work and personal life can become challenging when working from home, potentially leading to longer working hours or difficulty disconnecting from work.


Create the Best Work Schedule for Your Team

If you are looking to introduce a different work arrangements or struggle to manage the existing one, try team calendar and absence management software. For example, in actiPLANS, you can manage employee schedules, absences and time off balances while your employees notify others of being absent or late, review who’s working from home and who is on vacation and plan their absences in a few clicks.

Leave management in actiPLANS

Leave management in actiPLANS – create an unlimited number of leave types, get your team to request and plan their time off and review employee availability

Even more, if you’d like to measure the effectiveness of your attendance policy, you can use actiTIME integration and combine time tracking and attendance management in a single environment. Try actiPLANS for free with a 30-day trial (no credit card required).


The 40-hour work week has played a vital role in shaping labor standards and promoting a healthier work environment for millions of people worldwide. While it remains a fundamental principle in many workplaces, ongoing changes in technology, demographics, and societal values will continue to influence how we approach work hours in the future. By adapting to these shifts and embracing flexibility and innovation, we can build a more inclusive, productive, and fulfilling work culture for all.

Want to organize your team and track
work progress more effectively?
actiPLANS is ready to help!

Start Using actiPLANS

Enjoy a better way to
schedule work
Start Using actiPLANS