Here's What Science Says About How Many Hours A Week You Should Work

The workaholics and #GirlBosses are getting tired. After years of being told to work hard and start a side hustle (or five), hustle culture might be on the way out, according to CNET. A different culture focused on four-hour workweeks and earning passive income has aimed to take the place of hustle culture in recent years. In a way, many of us have gone from working hard to dreaming of hardly working. The pandemic even inspired millions to quit their jobs in what has been called "The Great Resignation," where Americans left behind work they felt was too demanding or toxic to continue.

Between living to work and working to live, it's easy to slip into a pattern of spending too much time on the job, until it all becomes too heavy, forcing people to resign or hope that their passive income strategy pans out. So what's a healthy amount of time to devote to work each week, according to science? And how do experts recommend balancing work and life?

Here's how much you should really be working

Though most full-time positions require around 40 hours of work each week, many Americans are spending additional time on the job. According to a Gallup poll, the average workweek is 47 hours long, with 39% of people working at least 50 hours a week. But science recommends a much shorter work schedule.

A study by the Australian National University showed that the ideal workweek is only 39 hours long — extend those hours, and mental and physical health tend to suffer. Separate studies show that working too much can even trigger pain, fatigue, depression, diabetes, stroke, and cancer. In some cultures where overwork is the norm, such as in Japan, extended work hours can even lead to death, whether by suicide or natural causes (via The Guardian).

Not only that, but many people aren't even effective at their jobs after putting in long hours. A study by Stanford University shows that productivity slows after working 50 hours a week, and by 55 hours it stops altogether. Whether you pride yourself on being an achiever at work or not, the truth is that little gets done after working the standard 40 hours a week.

Creatives and office workers should work even less

Repetitive manual labor may take several hours to complete, and thankfully for your attention span, this type of work requires little brain power. But for those who work in an office or creative profession, the ideal workweek of 39 hours may be too long.

There's some evidence that our brains can only focus for about four hours a day. According to Alex Pang, productivity expert and author of "Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less," the brain needs plenty of rest and time away from stressors (per The Washington Post). Historically, too, top performers have been known to focus on a mental task for only about four or five hours each day. Beyond that point, it's best to take a break and let the mind relax until the next day.

To truly maximize brain power, a study by DeskTime showed that people should only work for 52 minutes at a time before taking a 17-minute break. The key, then, for creatives and those responsible for mental tasks is to work short shifts each day, filled with regular breaks.

Some jobs may require long hours, but boundaries should still be set

If your job demands more than the recommended 39 hours a week, you don't have to resign yourself to health problems and low productivity just yet. Some lines of work require long hours to keep things moving. Train operators, legislators, and surgeons are just some of the job titles requiring 45-plus hours per week (per Business Insider).

Some jobs may also require different work schedules at different times. For example, freelancers with project-based work and seasonal workers may commit more hours at peak times, then rest when demand settles.

In either situation, some boundaries are still essential to avoid working beyond your limit. As PsychCentral suggests, don't work during break times, say "no" when asked to take on additional work, and clearly communicate your needs in the workplace. Setting and honoring your boundaries will help you balance work and downtime to stay productive on the clock, without sacrificing personal wellbeing.

There's no one-size-fits-all work week

While 39 work hours a week is below the average 47, there are some that may struggle to reach even this mark. Labor outside of work (such as household chores or caring for family) can make it hard to work full-time hours comfortably and realistically. And when all of life's demands are combined, it can lead to burnout and exhaustion in the workplace.

Signs of burnout can range from trouble concentrating to digestive issues. Unsurprisingly, some especially busy groups, like working mothers, are at high risk of suffering from burnout (per CNBC). Others who work in high-pressure positions, such as management or healthcare roles, may also face burnout.

In cases like these, a shorter workweek may be necessary to thrive professionally — and personally. Even if you're already under the ideal 39-hour threshold, experiencing signs and symptoms of burnout is a signal that it's time to slow down and give yourself a break.

When you're off the clock, make sure to truly disconnect

You worked around 39 hours for the week, and you're ready to commute home (or to your living room, if you work from home) and leave your work stress behind. Then, that weekend, you find yourself opening emails, checking your online workspace notifications, and brainstorming what needs to get done first thing Monday morning. This way of habitually tending to work, even when your shift is over, is becoming more common, according to CNN. Work can easily creep into your leisure hours, especially when you work remotely.

An easygoing 39 or 40-hour workweek can quickly become overbearing when it accidentally becomes a 45 or 50-hour workweek. Time spent checking work after hours or extending the time spent at your desk can quickly add up. To stick to the ideal workweek that suits you and your wellbeing, it's crucial to create some rules to keep your work and home life separate. For example, limit where you work, and follow a strict schedule to avoid working yourself to death — figuratively and literally.