What is reasonable when it comes to working hours?


In the 1920s, Henry Ford introduced the 40-hour working week for his employees; Monday to Friday, 9am – 5pm. Ford believed that 40 hours a week was the ideal working time for people to be their most productive. More than this resulted in very little more in terms of output.

Fast forward a century and our contracts haven’t changed much in western countries. People are still contracted Monday to Friday, 9am – 5pm. However, for many of us, this typical working week no longer exists, especially post the global pandemic.

With so many of us now working in hybrid models, more flexible working and often a lot more working remotely, the question isn’t so much around what are normal working hours but more, what are reasonable working hours?

Let’s go back to Ford, just for a moment. He was clearly aware of productivity and peak performance, as a general theory – the ideal working hours for one to be at their best before performance started to dwindle and it would cost more to pay than what was being produced was about 8 hours per day.

In the modern day, we recognise that burnout is a real thing and the longer and harder we work does not equate to higher quality or quantity output. We also know that time away from work (every day) helps with clarity, focus, mental stamina and creativity.

So, what is reasonable?

I don’t think this is a one size fits all approach. Laborious jobs – such as construction or manufacturing – these industries need restrictions for health and safety. The same goes for aviation and health care. However, for the majority of us, in sedentary ‘office’ jobs reasonable is still debatable.

Here’s my view

Delivering the bare minimum of your role is the basic level of expectation and if you can’t do that in 7-10 hours 4 or 5 days per week then perhaps the job isn’t right for you.

On the other hand, we know that burnout is real, often prompted by ‘long hours, more demanding workload and conflicts in work life balance’ as recently found in a Yerbo study of Tech professionals across the globe. In my experience, often the pressure of high revenues is also driving burnout (& certainly stress) forcing people to work much longer hours to hit their financial targets.

My philosophy isn’t that we should be working ‘x’ number of hours per week but instead, ensure you’re getting at least 8 hours of sleep each night; have time and energy to take part in daily exercise – whether that be a walk, yoga, or anything more intensive; and time to spend with loved ones on a daily basis. Thinking more holistically about our needs and align these to what we’re capable of in terms of our workload capacity.

For some people this might be 5 hours one day and 12 hours another or 50 hours one week and 20 the next. This might be because you’re working on a project and you’re in the flow of what you’re doing. For some people this is absolutely unreasonable – that is, their mental capacity does not enable them to work for such long hours in one stretch.

Quite frankly, I actually don’t believe that the number of hours worked is really the measure of reasonableness. Are you doing work that it satisfying? That you enjoy? That is mentally stimulating? That is adding value to someone / something? Where you feel trusted? Respected? And, valued? And, you’re given the appropriate tools and training to do your job? If the answer is yes, to each of these questions, then reasonable hours must also reflect these questions.

The working environment must be such that a job can be done in an allocated time that allows for you to be at your personal and professional best. This means, in your personal life having 7-9 hours of sleep (with two hours before sleep time to rest your mind & allow for proper sleep), having time and energy to take part in some movement each day and time for connecting with others each day (even if it’s just a phone call!). And, of course, a couple of days per week for a proper switch off from work. If these are satisfied, then outside of this is reasonable.

Here’s how you might achieve this

  • Switch off! Set a timer to stop working. Occasionally we are working on a piece of work and we’re in the flow. This normally involves a deep thought work, work that you’re doing in isolation of others. When you’re in the flow that’s great to keep going but maybe set a timer for 2-3 hours so that you’re giving your brain a break and recharge your energy which might just give you that creativity that is missing from your work.
  • Set an out of office. Whether it’s to turn off over the weekend, or you’re on holidays or on a day off (training or personal time off) whatever the case, set your out of office and manage expectation of when you might reply to someone. People are more forgiving than you think and when someone is informed of a delay this helps manage their expectation as well as allowing you the chance to focus on whatever it is you’re doing instead.
  • Delay send. If you’re working ‘unusual’ hours you can still send your emails whenever you want to but set the send to delay when might be an appropriate hour for someone else to receive your email.
  • Add your working hours to your email signature. Lots of people now add a sentence to their email signature informing people of their working hours – which might also include a note explaining that their email has been sent at a time that suits them but they recognise this time might not suit the receiver, however, they do not expect an immediate response.
  • Set time each day for your physical, mental and emotional wellbeing needs. Make sure you’re getting enough time for sleep, time for movement and time to connect with others each day and certainly each week.

If you were to average this over the course of a month it would be roughly 40 working hours per week but done in such a way where you’re adding true value at work, you’re energised, you’re mentally stimulated, you’re getting enough sleep and you’re spending some quality time with loved ones. That to me is the best way to assess reasonable working hours.

At Rosby, we’re on a mission to improve the experience of work for everyone. In doing so, we believe that people and businesses will thrive – creating happy, healthier workplaces.

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