Open Mic: NP is Rethinking the 40-hour Work Week

As we enter the summer season, our team is reflecting on and celebrating the incredible work we have accomplished this first half of 2022. We’ve been able to successfully advocate for meaningful housing investments at the Legislature, Residents Organizing for Change has been working on a comprehensive bill to support and empower residents of affordable housing, the Oregon Economic Justice Roundtable is looking for a consultant to help us launch our economic justice narrative project, the IDA Initiative continues to center racial equity in its work in promoting asset building for Oregonians, and we are looking forward to the publication of our 2022 evaluation report of the IDA program later this year!  

With so much progress to celebrate, on top of the regular day-to-day work, we must also acknowledge that our industry’s work, that the work our ecosystem of non-profits does, takes a considerable amount of time and effort on the part of the members of the NP team. Without a chance to pause, to celebrate our accomplishments, and to take much-needed time to relax, we aren’t doing ourselves any favors for our continued work and, more importantly, for our mental health. For this reason, NP has chosen to implement a 32-hour work week, and the NP team will collectively take time for themselves and not work on Fridays this summer. Our principle behind this decision is that our well-being as people should always come before our work – one way of holding ourselves to our principle is simply by working less. We will also assess whether to permanently adopt a 32-hour workweek afterward. 

This decision recognizes that there is a long-overdue discussion that needs to be had regarding how we at NP, and we as a larger society, think about work and how much five continuous days of labor demands of us. But before we ask that question, we must consider how and why we have collectively chosen to accept a 40-hour work week standard.  

In the midst of the Industrial Revolution, while there were significant advancements in productivity through the standardization of division of labor, technological advancements, and imposition of the assembly line model, labor of individuals contributed significantly to the productivity experienced in this era. In fact, labor played the most important role in the Industrial Revolution, so much so that people were expected to work as long and as hard as the machines that were invented in the same period. 

In 1890, when the U.S. government first started to track hours worked per week, the full-time employee was estimated to have worked around 100 hours per week, a demand that today seems inconceivable in most professions.  It wasn’t until 1938 when Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which limited the work week to 44 hours (the FLSA was later amended in 1940 to limit the workweek to 40 hours). 

It may be easy to acquiesce and conclude that a 40-hour workweek is somehow the sweet spot that works the best for everyone. But Congress’ action in passing the FLSA, as it is the case with most legislation, is a product of compromise between the interests of both workers and employers. Similarly, FLSA protections do not protect everyone equally (see, for example, independent contractors, who may have to work upwards of 100 hours a week, and agricultural workers, who are exempt from federal minimum wage provisions, as well as time-and-a-half overtime compensation).  

So, if the 40-hour work week was a compromise that may not be the best option, what is? NP is, by far, not the only organization that is reconsidering the 40-hour work week. We know many of our partners who have made this change already, or who are seriously considering it. For the next half year, 70 companies across the United Kingdom will undergo a pilot program to assess the benefits associated with a 4-day work week. For those more interested in productivity outcomes, we have also seen that other iterations of four-day work week policies show productivity boosts as high as 40%.   

With all of the changes the pandemic has created, it has also given us an opportunity to be intentional about the health and well-being of our staff and to align our policies and practices to what’s most supportive to ourselves, our team and our community. We must revisit and scrutinize the idea that more work equals better outcomes. This idea is suspect not only because we have seen outcomes showing the opposite conclusion, but also because it takes no consideration of the need for people to live and enjoy life outside of the bounds of work. As Neighborhood Partnerships undergoes its own experiment of implementing a 32-hour work week, we will be sure to check in with our team, and report back our own findings in hopes that you, too, will consider the benefits associated with simply working less.  

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