Op-Ed: Laborers who fought for 40-hour weeks a century ago wouldn’t want you to send work emails from bed

A person holding a smartphone
Put down the phone. Boundaries pay off.
(Getty Images)

There is an adage in the business world that speaks a truth at the heart of many work, family and health dysfunctions: “Work expands to fill the available time.” Of course, in a digitally connected world, that is all the time.

The end of the workday now is more of a prelude, perhaps to another dozen emails or a remote office where nagging to-dos are just steps away. Connectivity to work after hours via smartphones has added to workdays, following some into bed at night. Leaner staffs and a labor shortage have multiplied workloads. More and more of us are always on.

It’s a long way from the 40-hour week, a central achievement of the U.S. labor movement that we celebrate on Labor Day. Some 70% of remote workers say they work on weekends, and nearly half report they work longer than when they were at the physical job site.


Not surprisingly, stress and burnout, the last stage of chronic stress, are at all-time highs. Nearly 3 in 4 workers in a Gallup survey say they feel burnout “sometimes,” with 29% saying “very often” or “always.” Too many of us are working beyond physical and cognitive capacity in a state of permanent overwhelm.

There is a clear association between long, stressful hours and serious medical conditions. Working more than 10 hours a day 50 days a year can increase the risk of stroke by 29%. The risk of hypertension increased 17% for people working 41-49 hours a week and 29% for those doing more than 51 hours a week, a University of California Irvine study found. The World Health Organization documented that 55-plus-hour workweeks are responsible for 745,000 deaths a year worldwide, mostly from stroke and heart conditions.

In the U.S., workplace stress may account for $190 billion a year in healthcare costs, one 2016 study at Stanford estimated. The authors make the case that workplace health costs play a role in soaring national health bills.

One of the conditions that can come from burnout is depression, which has been estimated to account for 400 million disability days per year and $210 billion a year in health costs and lost productivity. Burnout can also contribute to more than a dozen other medical conditions, including Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, respiratory problems and gastrointestinal issues, as detailed in an analysis of 993 burnout studies.

We could prevent many of these needless health tragedies and costs by following the science to practices that are more productive, and healthier, than tests of raw stamina. The key is sensible boundaries.

We can set the terms of engagement with digital devices. We can explicitly adjust the assumed “always on” schedule. Boundaries aren’t so scary. Every system of time management and information management is a system of boundaries. Without boundaries, we have anarchy, not productivity.


A meta-analysis by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that people who work long hours regularly are less productive than those who work 40-hour weeks, and a lot less healthy. Researchers have also concluded that workaholic behavior “was not significantly related to performance.”

In the knowledge economy, productivity is a function of how much attention you have, not how many all-nighters you pull. Brains are limited by the time-on-task effect, in which attention degrades and strain builds. The willpower to stay on task erodes, and stress and aggravation grow.

Boundaries are essential for focus, health and life, so employees need to speak up about chronically excessive hours. Organizations that rein in an all-hours world will reap the benefits.

What kind of boundaries can help? Checking email only at designated times, and keeping email and phone alerts and visual notifications turned off otherwise. No work email outside work hours. No work email on vacation. No-interruption zones to protect working memory. A stop time at the end of the workday. Realistic deadlines. Pushing back against expectations of excessive hours. If commutes and workplace distractions are taking a toll, insist on at least some remote days.

We know a lot more about the connections between work and health issues and between stress and productivity than we did a century ago, when the labor movement won reforms to curb marathon workweeks to a 40-hour standard. We should rekindle that spirit to build healthy work practices in this digital age. Boundaries make sense for employers, for individuals and for society.

Joe Robinson is the author of “Work Smarter, Live Better: The Science-Based Work-Life Balance and Stress Management Toolkit.”