A 7-day workweek is now legal in Wisconsin -- here's why it could be disastrous

Wisconsin factory workerBloomberg/GettyAn employee sorts boards as they exit a cutting machine at the Nicolet Hardwoods Corp. lumber mill in Laona, Wisconsin, in 2012.

Wisconsin employees can now work all week without a day of rest.

When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a contender for the Republican presidential nomination, approved the state’s budget earlier this month, he got rid of a provision that said factory and retail employees were required to take off a full 24 hours every seven days, unless they got the state’s permission to skip their day off, according to Mashable.

Employers can now request that employees work a full week, and those employees can opt in or out.

The legislation change, which will likely affect blue-collar and hourly workers, could benefit employers. Instead of having to hire additional people, companies could add more hours to the schedules of existing employees.

Yet the decision ignores a growing consensus among researchers: Working longer hours can make us sick and less productive.

But some employees might want the extra money and take the opportunity to work more anyway.

“There’s really good health and safety research reasons for not having people work so many hours or days in a row without any time off for rest and recovery,” said Lonnie Golden, Ph.D., a professor of economics at Penn State Abington who authored a report on the effects of working time on productivity.

The report also outlines some serious physical and mental health effects of working long hours (defined as working more than 48 hours per week). For example, overwork contributes to employee fatigue, stress, and symptoms of depression.

Ultimately, workers who face these health problems may have limited capacity to remain productive at work in the long run. They’re more likely to be absent and demonstrate lower morale.

Other research cited in the report suggests that productivity drops by a whopping 20% among white-collar workers who log more than 60 hours per week.

In Wisconsin, Golden said some people could end up working 11-hour shifts with no rest for two weeks straight, which means performance (and health) is particularly at risk.

The bigger problem, Golden said, is that “there’s a lot of evidence that people under those kind of working conditions” of working seven days a week “are not even aware of the downsides to their performance, to their alertness, and ultimately to their productivity if they’re not taking sufficient rest.”

In other words, if there’s an opportunity to work and earn more, employees might grab it — to their own detriment and the company’s.

To be clear, no one will be explicitly forced to log seven days a week. Employers can ask employees to work an additional day or two and employees have the option to turn them down.

But Golden suspects that some employees might feel as though they’re being coerced into working more — even though it’s technically voluntary. For example, they may think if they reject additional hours once, they will be passed over for additional hours in the future.

The silver lining here is that Golden says most employers and employees probably aren’t aware of state laws around work hours. So while it’s possible, it’s unlikely that the majority of Wisconsin companies will start asking people to work 14 days straight.

On some level, this decision seems like a step back in time, to an era when employers didn’t know or care about the impact overworking could have on their staff. Moreover, if the goal is to boost the state economy and help workers earn more, increasing wages would likely reduce the need for logging more hours.

As Golden said, while employers might see this decision as something that will boost their profits, in the long run they could end up with higher costs. “This would come back to haunt them,” he said.

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