History of the 8 Hour Work Day

If you’re living in the States or Canada, welcome back to work after a nice, long Labor Day weekend. Back to the grind of working from 9 to 5 (or if you’re like most people we polled in our recent survey, even longer than that). This pattern of working eight hours a day is so engrained in our daily lives that you’ve probably never stopped to question why is it exactly that we are expected to work eight hour days, five days a week?

Well, I’m glad you asked, because I’ve got the answer and hope you’re ready for a little history lesson. The idea behind the eight hour work day is hidden in the tidings of the Industrial Revolution (remember this glossary term in your history textbook?).

Long Days Lead to Frustration

During this time, manufacturing plants were looking to maximize the output of their factories. In order to achieve this goal, most plants were running 24/7, and because of this, employees had to work longer hours—between 10 and 16 hours per day. Because wages were so low, many people didn’t have a choice except to endure strenuous shifts in the factories.

These insanely long days weren’t really ideal for anyone, and soon a British man named Robert Owen had enough. In 1817 he started a campaign to have people work no more than eight hours per day. His campaign’s slogan was “Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.” Not a bad idea Mr. Owen!

But unfortunately, his idea didn’t really catch on for some time, even though throughout the 19th century, a series of acts, like The Factories Act of 1847, were steadily passed in order to improve working conditions and reduce the number of work hours for factory workers.

Breaking Away from Work Day Norms

In 1884, another British man named Tom Mann took up the cause once again. He subsequently formed an “Eight Hour League” whose goal was to get the eight hour work day established. Their biggest success came from convincing the Trades Union Congress, which represented the majority of unions in Britain, to establish the eight hour work day as one of their primary goals.

Though the push for a shorter work day began much earlier in the United States with strikes as early as 1791, the momentum for the cause really picked up with several “Eight Hour Leagues” forming in the United States around the same time as Mann had formed them in Britain.

In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions declared that May 1, 1886 would be the first day that an eight hour work week would be made mandatory. And because this wasn’t backed by any federal mandates, the idea relied on workers continuing striking to drive the point home. When this date arrived, the first ever May Day parade was held, with more than 300,000 workers across the U.S. walking off their jobs and protesting for the eight hour work day.

Progress for the eight hour work day dragged on slowly, and almost thirty years after the first May Day parade, the Ford Motor Company was one of the first businesses to implement new standards for the work day by cutting hours to eight per day and doubling wages. A shock to many businesses, Ford’s productivity and profit improved within two years of the change. In short, this was a case study of sorts to encourage other businesses to follow in Ford’s footsteps.

It wasn’t until 1938 that the Fair Labor Standards Act federally mandated the standardization of the eight hour work day. The act states that workers were not allowed to work more than 44 hours per week and any hours over 40 required overtime bonuses.

So there you have it. The idea of the eight hour work day isn’t backed by some sort of scientific discovery of how long the human body could be productive, just a century old norm for factories to run efficiently while treating employees fairly.

Logic would lead us to believe that long hours bring on more productivity, but recent research from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) tells a different story. Just like the Ford Motor Factory assumed, the relationship between hours worked and productivity indicates longer hours might not result in more productivity.

In PGi’s infographic, Winding down the Work Week, it was found that overall, productivity and disposable income seem to increase as annual hours worked decreased. So while you may think you’re being more productive by being a workhorse during the week, learn from Ford’s example and try sticking to eight hours or less per day!

Want to learn more about the average American’s work week? Learn more here:

The Demise of the Work Week | Is 50+ Hours the New Norm?

Slideshare: #TakeBack60: The Demise of the Work Week


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