By looking at modern hunter-gatherers, anthropologists and archaeology experts estimate their prehistoric counterparts probably worked just three to five hours a day, though the hours worked are likely to have fluctuated wildly during the year...
If food was plentiful, say thanks to a glut of berries or following a big game kill, bygone hunter-gatherers probably worked even fewer hours. They would also have taken time off to perform religious rituals, bury the dead, dabble in cave painting, and other non-work activities.
The typical farm worker in the Israel of 100 BC tended crops or engaged in other farm work for around eight hours a day. For a working day that began at dawn and concluded at dusk that's a heavy load, but three hours would have been set aside for prayer, while eating the day's main meal was likely to have taken an hour or so.
Work was strictly forbidden on the Sabbath, as well as during a number of religious festivals: Rosh Hashanah (two days), Sukkot (a week), Shavuot (one day), and Passover (seven to eight days). Work was permitted at Purim, but many people would have spent the day enjoying the festivities. In addition, several work days a year are likely to have been taken off for weddings and other events.
Slaves in imperial Rome were at the grindstone 24/7, but most free artisans only worked six hours a day, from 6am to midday. Not only that but festivals were frequent. In fact, according to some historians, Romans who were not in chains ended up working only half the year.
Sunday was the day of rest, but peasants also had plenty of time off to celebrate or mark Christian festivals. Economist Juliet Schor estimates that in the period following the Plague they worked no more than 150 days a year.
Workers in the Aztec Empire during the 14th century laboured away for four days, but didn't work on the fifth day when they went to the local market to stock up on provisions. They would also take time off to partake in religious festivals, many of which involved human sacrifice.
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In contrast, the typical factory worker in mid 19th-century England toiled away for a shocking 16 hours a day, six days a week. Why the change? The Industrial Revolution was in full swing and factory owners could work their employees to the bone due to a lack of regulation and abundance of cheap labour.
By the early 20th century, collective bargaining by unions and government regulation had resulted in much shorter working hours in the Western world. The typical working day in the 1920s had shrunk to eight hours. In America in 1926, auto pioneer Henry Ford cut the working week at his factories to five days after noticing productivity increased when his employees worked 40 rather than 48 hours.
Unlike workers in Europe, who enjoy plenty of paid leave guaranteed by legislation and aren't afraid to take it, American workers average just 12 days off per year and refrain from work on 10 public holidays. Incredibly, US law doesn't actually require employers to grant their staff paid leave of any kind.
When the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, most countries issued stay-at-home orders. While some employers had to furlough workers as they couldn't adapt to working outside of the workplace, many businesses pivoted to a working from home model, and lots of people are still working from home offices. While officially working hours remain the same, there have been growing reports that people working from home have ended up working longer hours than usual.
In fact, home workers in the US, Canada, Austria and the UK have seen the amount of time they are logged into their computers increase by more than two hours per day, according to research by NordVPN Teams. Workers in the US and UK have seen their working day increase from nine hours on average to 11 hours.
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