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Three-day work week is best for those over 40, study suggests

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The compressed work week is a hotly debated topic, and something you might even find yourself dreaming of on a dreary Wednesday, but a new study suggests that those over the age of 40 actually do best at their jobs when they work only three days a week.

The study, conducted by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economics and Social Research from the University of Melbourne focused on how cognitive abilities are affected by quantity of working hours in Australians over 40.

Using the Institute’s Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey the researchers examined the answers of 3,000 men and 3,500 women in tests of working memory span, visual scanning, divided attention and reading skills. They discovered that, for the over-forty crowd, 25 hours of work per week was optimal, and would even have “a positive impact on cognitive functioning.” But more time than that “may have a negative effect on cognition in middle age,” as evidence shows from the lower test scores of those who worked longer hours.

The study, called “Use it too much and lose it?”, certainly hit a nerve. In a time when the average Canadian hopes to retire at 62 (up from 60 five years ago), and nearly half of working Canadians live paycheque to paycheque, it’s hard to imagine working less in middle age. But burnout and stress have noted negative health outcomes, and the Melbourne study is enough to make you wonder if those late nights at the office are even worth it.

Reimagining the way we work is an interesting prospect. The CBC radio show Spark aired an episode about the five-hour workday, and the entrepreneur who tested the theory. Stephan Aarstol, CEO of Tower Paddle Boards, moved his company to a five-hour work day — 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. straight, no breaks — and if employees could retain the same level of productivity, they’d go back to their lives when most people break for lunch.

That’s what a lot of this debate is about — the balance between work and “real life,” and if the distinction even exists anymore. When emails come in all through the night, and an engaging online presence is evaluated in the hiring process, work and real life blur together.

Andrew Sullivan’s recent viral hit for New York Magazine, “I Used to Be a Human Being,” explores how the all-encompassing pull of the web, and the fast-paced workday that comes with it swallowed him whole. He wrote, “I’d begun to fear that this new way of living was actually becoming a way of not-living.” And if the Melbourne study is correct, too much work after a certain age takes away more than just your free time.

Sullivan’s story, paired with the University of Melbourne’s study, may have you planning a long weekend, but both are indicative of something many of us have yet to understand: how to make the work week work for us.