In a December 2019 article for “Public School Review,” Grace Chen wondered whether longer lunch breaks boosted productivity among students. Per the School Nutrition Association, on average, elementary and middle school student lunch breaks range from 25 to 30 minutes. Yet, Chen found, some schools had success with 50-min. programs.

Could the results be the same in the professional world? A 2019 QuickBooks study said the average American worker gets a 36-min. lunch break—the worldwide midpoint. Still, more and more research points out that fewer work hours add up to greater productivity, increased focus and happier employees.

 Work Hours & Productivity

According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, workers in Mexico put in the highest number of work hours at 43 per week, on average, or 2,255 per year. Stats for other countries include:

  • Russia – 38 per week | 1,972 per year
  • U.S. – 34 per week | 1,783 per year
  • Japan – 32 per week | 1,680 per year
  • France – 29 per week | 1,520 per year

At 26 hours per week, or 1,363 per year, German workers logged the fewest hours. Interestingly, another OECD study ranked Germany third in hourly productivity with Ireland and Norway coming in first and second. All three countries enjoyed substantially lower annual work hours than those on the high end of the spectrum.

This suggested that less hours worked could, indeed, increase productivity.

Four-Day Work Weeks

In 2018, the New Zealand-based estate, will and trust planning firm Perpetual Guardian implemented a 4-Day Work Week trial for its 240 staff members which was closely followed, studied and monitored by researchers and academics. At its conclusion, it was declared a success—with 78 percent of the company’s employees reporting less stress.

By being better able to manage both work and life commitments, it turned out, employees could focus more on task completion while at work since they had ample time to address personal obligations or interests while not at work. Andrew Barnes, the firm’s founder, then made the 4-Day Work Week the company standard.

For those interested in developing a similar policy, Barnes offered recommendations like:

  • Establish clear goals upfront.
  • Emphasize business and social benefits.
  • Begin with a trial, letting employees opt in.
  • Measure success quantitatively and qualitatively.
  • Encourage staff to coordinate time off for best coverage.

Barnes and several colleagues have since established a nonprofit called, fittingly enough, 4-Day Week Global. The driving message? Reduced work hours lead to increased productivity, profitability and employee wellbeing—all of which are said to result in a more sustainable model. 

Work/Life Balance

Work/life balance and flexible work options have been and continue to be priorities for many into the new decade. A 2015 study by FlexJobs Corp.—which lists remote, freelance and flexible job opportunities online—found that 84 percent of millennials, in particular, want more work/life balance.

The study also showed that 76 percent of those surveyed said they felt more productive when they could avoid reporting to an office, citing:

  • Fewer interruptions (76%)
  • Fewer distractions (74%)
  • Minimal office politics (71%)
  • Reduced commuting stress (68%)
  • More comfy work environments (65%)

As Ron Friedman, author of “The Best Place to Work,” told Emma Plumb of WorkFlexibility.org: “We have decades of studies showing that people are happier, healthier and more productive when they feel autonomous … because autonomy is a basic psychological need.”

Greater autonomy? Meet increased engagement.

Paid Time Off

When it comes to PTO or even sabbaticals, U.S. Travel Association research showed that, in 2018, Americans had accumulated 768 Million unused vacation days. More common in academic circles, researchers have also found that those who take sabbaticals return to work with less stress and higher wellbeing. No surprise there.

The results of “Sabbatical Leave: Who Gains and How Much?” published in the “Journal of Applied Psychology,” however, did show that those positive effects stuck around well after employees returned to the workplace after extended time away. That finding was a surprise to researchers.

David Burke, in an article for the “Harvard Business Review,” wrote that sabbaticals open up interim roles to employees who are interested in moving up in rank and who get to try out those open positions and take on heightened responsibilities temporarily.

He added that, in order to be truly effective, teams should never depend on any one person functioning at their highest level to get the job done. Interim managers and directors can just as easily help those teams function productively—even when a department head is on vacation or has taken an unexpected leave of absence.

With the rise of the gig economy, insights are expanding and values are shifting around what makes for a life “well lived” and a happier, more productive workforce. The overworked, stressed-out, American way of approaching work is in decline.

After all, why work harder when you can live better?