Illustration of people trying to code while sitting inside an hourglass

Have you ever wondered how many hours is the ideal number of hours you should work per week? Here’s the answer: it’s 38 hours. (I’ll explain why in a moment.)

But perhaps you are one of those people who brags about your 70-hour workweek. Or maybe you are on the other end of the spectrum, chasing the 4-hour workweek dream.

Whatever your particular appetite for work is, know that there’s plenty of evidence that putting in more hours each week doesn’t necessarily equate to higher productivity. Research tells us that productivity falls sharply after 50 hours per week, and drops off a cliff after 55 hours. Additionally, not taking at least one full day off per week leads to lower hourly output overall.

Research also reveals the damage to our physical health that overwork can cause. A study from the World Health Organization (WHO) found that working an average of 55 hours or more each week increases your risk of stroke by 35 percent and your risk of dying from heart disease by 17 percent, compared to averaging a 35-40 hour workweek.

Our non-stop lifestyle has also resulted in additional work-related stress. 48 percent of employees reported feeling rushed for time, and 52 percent said they feel significant stress as a result. That’s probably why the four-hour workweek is such an enticing dream, even if it’s not entirely feasible for the average worker.

So how do we get everything done without feeling like we’re in a constant relay race?

Ideal work hours per day and week

It’s time to stop measuring productivity

Time management expert Laura Vanderkam conducted a study to determine how the number of hours you work each day affects how much time you think you have.

Of the 900 people included in the study, the average employee worked 8.3 hours per day. And the results showed that there was only a one-hour difference between the workers who felt like they had a lot of time and those who felt time-pressured. Those who felt like they had the least time overall worked 8.6 hours, whereas those who felt like they had the most time worked just one hour less, or 7.6 hours.

So to not feel starved for time, aim for a 7.6 hour workday. That would equate to a 38-hour workweek.

What about alternative work schedules? 

If you’re new to this idea, some examples of alternative work schedules include: 

  • 4 x 10-hour days (40 hours)
  • 4 x 8-hour days (32 hours)
  • 5 x 6-hour days (30 hours) 

Each of these options has the benefit of giving you extra time for personal matters where you didn’t have it before – either by condensing a traditional workweek into four days, or by simply putting in fewer hours. As to which format might suit you best, it’s really a matter of your personal responsibilities, your job responsibilities, and your employer’s willingness to be flexible. 

Parents with school-aged children, for example, might be thrilled with a schedule that has them working five days a week with slightly reduced hours each day. That way, they essentially work while the kids are at school. Or, busy human resources professional might need 40 hours each week to get all their work done, but would benefit from compressing those hours into a 4-day schedule that affords them an extra day off (and keeps burnout at bay). 

Non-traditional schedules are gaining traction in places like Spain and Scandinavia. So watch this space. And speaking of Scandinavia…

Work hours and happiness

A 38-hour workweek is remarkably similar to the number of hours worked in Denmark, consistently one of the world’s happiest countries (Denmark has placed among the top three happiest countries on the World Happiness Report in each of the last eight years). People in Denmark work hard and are just as productive as other workers, but rarely put in more than 37 hours a week, often leaving the office by 4 or 5 PM each day. Other Scandinavian countries enjoy a similar work-life balance and similar happiness rankings.

Happiness expert Dan Buettner takes it even a step further. Buettner has reviewed the research on more than 20 million people worldwide through the Gallup-Sharecare Well-Being Index, and has conducted extensive on-the-ground research in the world’s happiest countries. “When it comes to your work, try to work part-time, 30–35 hours a week on average,” he says.

Buettner also recommends taking six weeks of vacation per year, which is the optimal amount for happiness. If that isn’t possible, he says at the very least you should use all of your allotted vacation days and keep negotiating for more until you’re getting six weeks.

Unfortunately, American employees are not taking half of their vacation days, and two-thirds of Americans report working even when they are on vacation.

What is Parkinson’s Law and why is it sabotaging your productivity?

Maybe 30 work hours per week and six weeks of vacation is not practical for you. But that’s okay.

If you want to achieve the perfect blend of productivity, happiness, and time affluence, a more realistic goal is to work slightly below 40 hours per week.

The research shows that even shaving an hour or two off of the standard 40-hour workweek can have huge benefits, both at work and at home.

Less than 10% of workers are able to achieve that schedule. A good goal is to be one of those people.

Here’s to a shorter, happier workweek!

This is how many hours you should really be working