Eight hours is too long to spend at work. Recent research says so.

The 8-hour workday has been the norm for more than a century, but employee surveys suggest that most people are truly productive only for about three hours every day. This has led to calls for the workday to be reduced to five or six hours, with proponents saying it would increase employee wellbeing, and ultimately productivity.

A 2019 survey of nearly 2,000 British office workers found the usual suspects accounted for what people most commonly did during the workday when they weren’t actually working: checking social media, reading news websites, talking about “out-of-work activities” with co-workers, making hot drinks, taking smoking breaks. Searching for a new job even snuck into the Top 10 list of non-productive office work time activities.

An Inc. magazine piece published shortly after the study’s release embraced the findings, insisting that with a six-hour workday, “people would be better rested, more focused, and likely more productive.”

The coronavirus pandemic, which over the past year has forced millions of office workers to set up shop from home, has reignited the call for shorter hours.

A new piece in Wired’s British edition says five hours, rather than six, is the ideal, calling this schedule “compressed working.”


“Research indicates that five hours is about the maximum that most of us can concentrate hard on something,” productivity consultant Alex Pang told the magazine. “There are periods when you can push past that, but the reality is that most of us have about that [amount of] good work time in us every day.”

The 8-hour workday is a remnant of the industrial age, and it came about in part because it made for a snappy labor-rights slogan: “Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”

For millions of people, the information age has different requirements.

A few companies have experimented with shorter office hours in recent years, The Wall Street Journal has reported. The results apparently have been mixed. For some, productivity spiked; for others, it didn’t.

One CEO thought “team culture” and office relationships took a hit. That company considered banning distractions like personal cellphones to get the full productivity pop from a 5-hour workday.

For those companies out in front of the curve on shorter hours, the pandemic actually upended the experiment.

Working from home provided staffers “the flexibility to fit their personal lives around their work commitments,” Wired pointed out, “but it also means the key element that makes five-hour days a success — a solid period of unbroken concentration — is harder to achieve.”