Employers know that there are legal restrictions in terms of the number of hours a nonexempt employee can work before incurring overtime pay. There are also restrictions on the hours a minor can work. And for safety reasons, there are restrictions on the number of consecutive hours medical residents and truck drivers can work.
But what about other employees? Are there restrictions for general work hours?
The short answer is usually no—not by law—but some organizations have opted to voluntarily restrict the number of hours they want or accept an employee to work—and they’re finding benefits in doing so.
Benefits to Restricting Work Hours
Generally speaking, we’re referring to the idea that employers may want to limit the total number of hours that employees work in a given workweek. This might mean restricting after-hours work, or it might mean making a shorter workweek for everyone.
One of the most obvious benefits of restricting work hours is the idea that doing so will improve an employee’s work/life balance. Having a clear delineation between work time and home time makes it easier for an employee to relax after the workday is done. Arguably, this could reduce stress, burnout, absences, and even turnover. It can improve mental and physical health and allow employees to have more time to pursue nonwork activities.
While some may fear this will result in lost productivity, others will argue that the opposite is true—by giving employees a clearer stopping point in the workday, they’re more likely to maximize efficiency and productivity because the workday is now limited. How it works in practice remains to be seen.
Employers have accomplished this change in work hours in a few ways:
- Shutting down access to e-mails and servers during a specified time, such as between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m.
- Implementing a policy of not contacting employees outside of normal working hours except in emergencies
- Creating a policy that explains that employees are not expected to check their messages after the workday ends—and that the employer cannot put pressure on its employees to do so
What Is Behind the Change in Attitude?
When it comes to employee work hours, the fear we are combating is that the widespread use of technology—such as smartphones and laptops—makes it too easy for employees to work at all hours of the day and experience burnout as a result. With no separation of work and home, employees cannot effectively have any downtime to mentally and physically recharge. This can lead to productivity losses, mental and physical health problems, and increased turnover.
This topic has been under discussion in recent years because entire nations have taken public steps to curb the trend of employees working too much. Germany, for example, made the news in 2014 when the German Labor Ministry discussed introducing new rules that would ban contacting employees of the Ministry outside of standard work hours.
This topic is also in the news because some are touting the idea as a way to create an economy with the lowest level of unemployment. Proponents of this idea would even suggest changing to a 4-day workweek to allow the most work/life balance while simultaneously encouraging employers to hire more employees (with everyone working approximately 30 hours per week). The theory is that this model would boost productivity on a per-hour basis since there are fewer work hours in a given week for each person. More people would be employed, which in turn helps the economy and helps reduce social issues related to unemployment and underemployment. There’s even an argument to be made that this model could improve the health of everyone due to less stress, less burnout, and more time to pursue exercise and hobbies.
Naturally, the catch with this model is ensuring that a full-time employee working only 30 hours per week is still paid enough to make a living. The model would also introduce additional administrative work simply by having more employees to manage. So, perhaps this 4-day workweek is still unrealistic, despite the benefits. The idea of curbing excess overtime and allowing a better work/life balance for employees under our current system, however, is something we could achieve now.
What are your thoughts? Would your organization consider voluntarily restricting contact with employees after standard work hours? Do you expect employees to answer messages at all hours of the day?
This article does not constitute legal advice. Always consult legal counsel with specific questions.
About Bridget Miller:
Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.