Workplace Doctor: How many working hours a day is the optimum amount?

What do you consider to be the optimum length for a working day. Once I reach about five hours of continual graft my thought processes start to tire. However, if I take a break of an hour or so, I quickly perk up again. At the same time, breaks make the working day stretch longer as I am contracted to put in nine hours a day at my desk. So, what do you consider to be the optimum length for the working day? AM, Sharjah

The average working day is between eight to nine hours per day and our employers expect us to perform consistently from morning through to dusk. Like you, I find it difficult to work continuously for extended periods and incorporate short “brain breaks” into my day. I also stop completely for my lunch in the middle of the day, as research has actually found that the absence of a proper lunch break can hinder productivity.

This typical workday of around eight hours emerged from the Industrial Revolution. In the 18th Century, factory owners maximised their factory’s productivity by running them 24/7. To make these factories more efficient, they ordered people to work longer and 16-hour workdays became the norm.

These incredibly long workdays were not sustainable and workers became sick or worse, until a brave group of people campaigned for shorter working hours. Their slogan was “Eight hours of labour, Eight hours of recreation, Eight hours of sleep”. However, convincing money hungry factor owners was easier said than done. It wasn’t until Henry Ford implemented this approach in his factories that it became the common practice.

So the conventional working day devised to support 18th century factory workers is still favoured by modern organisations even though the nature of work has evolved dramatically since then. Countries such as Sweden have already reduced the working day to six hours in an attempt to make people more productive and happier and the early signs are that it is working, so you are not alone in your sentiments.

Equally, the interconnected global nature of many jobs, as well as the shift to knowledge-based economies reinforces the question as to whether our traditional working day actually “works”. Working across different time zones and different working weeks means I am often connecting with colleagues or clients late into the night, or over the weekend. What was already a long week in the office, has now increased and my working hours are becoming more similar to those of the industrial revolution era. It all adds up.

When you are contracted to put in a certain amount of hours a day and your job does not afford flexibility or autonomy on how you use these hours, it becomes less about managing time and more about managing energy levels. Each human being has a finite energy store available to them at the beginning of each day. This then slowly becomes depleted as the day progresses.

One thing most of us easily forget is that as humans, we operate very differently from machines. Think back to the factory example and a conveyer belt running in a repetitive linear fashion consistently without stopping. Humans on the other hand work in cycles and we can only work at our highest level of concentration for a maximum of 120 minutes, before we require a short break to recharge our batteries. For the vast majority of us, attempting to maintain a consistently high level of performance over and above this amount of time is almost impossible.

One suggestion is to not think of your day as one continuous nine-hour shift, but to break it down into smaller 90-minute shifts, with short breaks in between. Assign a task for each time slot and by the end of the day you should ideally have achieved five tasks, and have taken all the necessary breaks to keep you going.

Doctor’s Prescription:

The optimal length of the working day can vary from person to person, but it is safe to assume that going over eight hours of continuous work is a practice best left in the 18th Century. Start by breaking your work day down into short shifts and manage your energy levels through techniques such as mindfulness exercises. Even if these stretch your day slightly at first, they will pay off dividends in the long run, and make you a happier and more productive employee.

Alex Davda is a business psychologist and consultant at Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and is based in the Middle East. Email him at for advice on any work issues


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