Redefining 'Full-Time' Under COVID-19

Best-selling author Daniel Goleman questions whether the 40-hour workweek makes sense under a pandemic—especially for those seeking purpose in their job.

Daniel Goleman
, author of the best seller Emotional Intelligence, and co-developer of the Goleman EI online learning platform, is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, is available now. 

For most of us being gainfully employed means a 40-hour work week (and for some of us, more than 40). A common prerequisite for benefits, the eight hour-a-day, five-day-a-week schedule has become a marker of modern adulthood.

But with millions of American now remote—many of them doubling as parents during the workday—is this schedule still viable? Given the circumstances of the pandemic, does the 40-hour week still serve us?

The 40-hour work week was put into place in the 1930’s when American labor unions fought to protect factory workers and coal miners from the 16-hour workdays then common since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Ford was the first company to implement an eight-hour day. Not only did it see more productive workers, but within two years its profit margins doubled, presumably with that productivity a key factor.

While most companies these days have a lot to say about work/life balance, the truth is that most Americans are working well beyond 40 hours. One poll found that the average American works close to 47 hours per week, and that 18% of workers clock in at 60 hours a week. Last year, the New York Times wrote about the rise of “hustle culture:” the glorification of grit, long hours and a commitment to work above and beyond anything else was a shared mentality among the rising generation of workers.

“Owning one’s moment” is a clever way to rename “surviving the rat race,” they reported. “In the new work culture, enduring or even merely liking one’s job is not enough. Workers should love what they do, and then promote that love on social media, thus fusing their identities to that of their employers.”

Workaholism has undergone a rebrand.

Coincidentally, this hustle culture has been adopted by the same generation that is taking a stand for purpose: millennials. In a recent survey, 63% of millennials (workers aged 24-39) said the primary purpose of businesses should be “improving society” instead of “generating profit." With purpose and hustle in the same conversation, there's a message being spread—that working overtime is a clear path to a more meaningful work life.

But data says something different.

For one, we know that long working hours lead to numerous health risks, resulting in a less enriching life over the long term. One longitudinal study found that over 26 years, executives who took less time off in midlife, were likely to die earlier and experience worse health in old age. And when Sweden experimented with six-hour workdays, it found that employees had better health and were more productive.

But what’s just as interesting, is how rest helps us make meaning, a must if we are to orient around a larger sense of purpose. When we are doing “nothing”—no work, no to-do lists, no getting the kids on and off Zoom, and no social media—the default-mode network (DMN) is activated, the part of our brains involved in memory consolidation and envisioning the future. This part of the brain helps us better understand ourselves, grasp social interactions, foresee consequences, and empathize with others.  

“It helps you recognize the deeper importance of situations,” Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neuroscientist and researcher at the University of Southern California’s Brain and Creativity Institute told BBC: “It helps you make meaning out of things. When you’re not making meaning out of things, you’re just reacting and acting in the moment, and you’re subject to many kinds of cognitive and emotional maladaptive behaviors and beliefs.”

We have been living in an era where hustle has become mistakenly synonymous with caring deeply for what you do in the world. In truth, not only does rest make us more functional in our jobs, but it helps us make sense of our world, and find greater meaning in the many layers of our experience.

Considering just how much there is to make sense of these days, more rest might be imperative to our survival. And if purpose is up there on the list of what matters, then companies might want to reconsider what “full time” really looks like.

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