Working 40 hours is Overrated

I’ve come to believe that 40 hours per work week is just too many to be working. There’s so much going on in the world, so much more I could be doing than hanging out indoors for 40 hours each week. Who came up with 40 hours being the magical working amount anyways? On one tougher-than-average day at work, I once asked this question out-loud, more to myself than to anyone else, but someone within earshot replied, “Henry Ford”. I’ve never fact-checked this answer, but I was told with such confidence that Henry Ford had set the standard of the 40 hour work week for his workers, that I have accepted this as cold, hard fact. Despite my distaste for a full 40 hours at work each week, I have been finding myself accruing overtime more and more frequently.

Here I am complaining about how hard I worked this winter. This is one of the views from the PT gym at work, it could be much, much worse.

I used to insist on having a 40 hour guarantee on my travel contracts, meaning that even if there weren’t enough patients, I was contractually allowed to spend 40 hours at work each week and get paid for it. Of course, if you find yourself in the cooshy position of having more guaranteed hours than actual work, it behooves you to keep busy however you can – cleaning the hydroculator, scrubbing a whirlpool, updating facility rehab protocols, etc. Sitting around at work reading a book or surfing Facebook is not a good look on anybody, no matter what your contract says. When I reflect on the last few years, I don’t ever remember sitting, twiddling my thumbs. I remember working for hospital departments that would unload their fulltime employees schedules and pack mine – it’s part of the gig as a traveler, you are a grunt-worker hired for the purpose of easing the load on the facility. None-the-less, having that 40 hour guarantee is a concrete way to make sure you’ll be gainfully employed during your contract. It’d be a shame to show up to your job in a far-off town expecting and needing 40 hours worth of pay and coming up short, so I still recommend securing a 40 hour guarantee in your contract whenever you can.

The job that I work every winter in Colorado (7 years running), has never offered 40 hours guaranteed. They used to guarantee nothing, but somewhere along the line adopted a 24 hour/week guarantee – the truth of it is, if therapists are consistently getting anywhere in the neighborhood of 24 hours, someone’s contract is getting canceled, because the department is overstaffed. It’s a unique situation there. The hospital has a view of 3 of the 4 ski mountains in town. If a lot of people are getting injured on the mountains, we’re busy; if tourism is down, or the ski conditions are forgiving to injuries, we can have our slow months. In past years I’ve frequently come in around 36 hours per week with a few weeks significantly higher and a few weeks lower. This year I worked my tail off. I worked a lot of 42-45 hour weeks this winter. That probably doesn’t sound like a lot to many people, especially anyone working in a field where there’s a machismo about hard work at the office – long hours, late nights, early mornings, and postural dysfunction are signs of dedication to the company! For me, 45 hours is my hell-on-earth. A standard week consists of 168 hours – 40 to work, 8 hours of sleep per night gives you another 56 hours gone – we’re already down to well less than half of our living, breathing hours after only work and sleep (I do appreciate my 8-hours-square per night). These calculations don’t even take into consideration the hours spent getting ready for work, the time commuting, and the time when you’re too pooped to do anything else because you’ve been working so damn hard. We’re in a work-centric society and I don’t care for our society’s priorities one bit. Take a hike, Henry Ford.

Traded in my winter view for a summery one. This is from the parking at lot at my current assignment - working a few too many hours... #HawaiiProbs

Traded in my winter view for a summery one in Hawaii. This is from the parking at lot at my current assignment where I’m not in the ocean nearly as much as I’d like… #HawaiiProbs

I have been looking forward to  coming back to my island oasis here on Molokai in Hawaii to have some good time to relax and get away from the fast pace of a >40 hour work week. My wife, Kate, had been guaranteed the 40 hour position out here, and I took the second-position at only 20 hours guaranteed per week. There were some other PT opportunities that I looked into, but nothing panned out. I was kind of looking forward to filling some of my spare hours working at the bike shop, or on a boat somehow, or as a pool cabana boy, or just having time to do more with this website. This week was my second week of work and I worked 6 days for about 45 hours. So much for relaxing. The island around me is most definitely running on serious Aloha-time while I’m busting my rump during the vast majority of the sun-filled hours. Last time I worked on the Big Island, 2 years ago, we ran into a similar situation – Kate had a 40 hour contract and I had set up an independent contract with no guaranteed hours. On that job, I had a full schedule with a couple weeks. …a developing pattern? As the summer moves along, I hope my work hours come back to earth and that Kate and I can each work 36 or 38 hours, not over the dreaded 40.

I’m going to continue asking for 40 hours guaranteed in my future contracts, but have grown more open to accepting contracts with less certain work hours. I’m beginning to wonder whether this pattern of always being busy at work is just something I’m experiencing, or is it a symptom in a larger, growing healthcare trend as the baby boomers age and as healthcare professions fail to keep up with the growing demand. I guess time will tell as we all slowly, but surely, burn out from long hours of high productivity.That’s kind of a bummer of a thought, and I hope it’s not the direction we’re headed. But the numbers don’t lie, everyone in rehab is going to be pretty busy for longer than the next 15 to 20 years. This means one thing for sure – travel therapy and temp employment will be an option for therapists for quite a while. So, if you’re looking at traveling, but not quite there yet, take your time, it’ll be here when you’re ready and you’ll have a blast when the time is right.

Well after all of that, I don’t want to sign off on any sort of sour note. I’m in Hawaii, making a fruitful living and very happy for it. A couple extra hours of work each week isn’t really what I want, but doing physical therapy in Hawaii is a fine way to spend 40-something hours each week – there are far less meaningful and satisfying things to be doing with my day, so I’m thankful for that.

More blogs to come soon. I plan to write lots. See you on the open road!

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  1. James-
    A well-written and thoughtful article. Consistent with trends I have seen in the industry lately as well. One thing worth noting: this problem is not just about increased baby boomers adding to the pt need population. As our industry pushes more for direct access and PT being a first stop for people, we will continue to see volumes increase. Patients closer to our age group are becoming more and more autonomous in their provider selections and managing their own care and for many, PT is a great starting point for a huge variety of musculoskeletal and neurological symptoms. This will only add to volumes further.
    Perhaps you should negotiate a 40-hour cap instead of a 40-hour guarantee?

    • As much as I moan about 40 hours, it’s often hard to say no to a few hours of over-time. Great comment about PT being a growing entry-way into the health system. I really feel we are in a unique position in the medical fields to both prevent and treat with science-based non-surgical interventions – nobody else does it at our level! We will see our profession truly come into it’s own as we hit 2020 and beyond.

  2. It may not have been Henry Ford who was responsible for forty hour work week. Perhaps it is a result of petitions by others who, like me, were required 12hours per day 7 days per week(=84hrs/week). Rather than requiring (at least) forty hours per week, they (we) wanted our hours cut down to what you and many others consider too many hours per week.
    Wow! Kind of puts things in perspective.

    • Definitely puts it into perspective…. and now we know not to blame Henry Ford, but also to thank those who fought for much MORE reasonable hours than before. I’m curious who you were working for at that time?

      Maybe I can continue a family tradition and petition against the (now) oppressive 40 hour standard. (just kidding) 🙂


  3. Hey James,
    I’m a young traveling PT from Michigan, currently on contract in Portland for the summer and possibly fall. I’ve enjoyed reading your blog and advice.
    I am hoping to find myself in Hawaii on contract starting in January as an outpatient therapist. A lot of what I’ve heard from recruiters is that it is a tough market to break and that it doesn’t pay well relative to the high cost of living. Do you have any recommendations as far companies to reach out to for contract work, making those connections on islands, or just travel PT life in Hawaii in general. I’d appreciate it!
    Thanks and have a great day

    • Sorry for my slow reply. A little too much enjoying this islands and not working on the website…

      Hawaii’s market can be very hit-or-miss. You may look one week and see no jobs and look the next week and have several options available. The jobs do come and go fast because it is a desirable market, so you for-sure need to be dialed in with a recruiter who can get the info on jobs out to you quickly when they pop up. I don’t like to suggest any particular recruiters on this site because I like to stay impartial publically, but if you want to shoot me an email, I’d be glad to share my recruiters with you that I’ve had luck finding assignments in Hawaii with.

      The majority of assignments pop-up on Oahu because Honolulu is there and it’s a big city. But when you do hear of jobs in Hawaii, make sure you know what island the job is on – be careful as many towns have the same name from island to island. I have set-up independent contracts out here as well. So if there’s a particular part of Hawaii that you want to travel to, but are having trouble finding positions through recruiters, don’t hesitate to google PT clinics, pick up the phone, and start calling to see who needs help.

      There are no PT programs in Hawaii, so the need for PTs is here, you just have to get your timing right to be available when the need comes up.

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