In the last two years, the concept of work as we know it has undergone a few radical changes. Novel ideas centered on remote work and telecommuting have emerged and has suddenly been catapulted into the new normal. One of such concept is the idea of the four-day work week. What does a four-day workweek look like in practice, though? What are the advantages and disadvantages? Is removing one day from the typical workweek really going to help people achieve the work-life balance and avoid burnout? Let’s start with the basics.
The basic idea of a four-day work week is that employees work for four days in a week for their employer instead of the typical five days a week, for the same pay or compensation package. Also, while a conventional five-day work week demands 40 hours of labour, the amount of hours required for a four-day program can vary. To be clear, a compressed schedule in which workers squeeze 37.5 to 40 hours of work into four days instead of five, is not the same as a four-day work week. The four-day work week allows employees three instead of two days to reboot and relax. It has been shown to result in fresher, more rested employees who feel better and can accomplish more on their four days in the office.
It sounds innovative, but the idea of a four-day work week is not new. In the 1920s and 1930s, as historian Benjamin Hunnicutt has documented, there was a lot of interest in shorter work weeks, with the 30-hour week being promoted as a method to “spread” work among the unemployed and underemployed during the Great Depression. Henry Ford was one of the biggest proponents for a six-hour workday, believing that workers would be more productive with more rest. So, why are we still discussing these ideas over hundred years later? Historically, what has happened is that companies would cut wages when they lowered work hours, and when employees retaliated, the employees would abandon their demands for fewer work hours in favor of wage increases. So, while the concept has been around for a long time, it has remained in the fringes of society’s work discourse.
The capitalist argument against the four-day work week has always been that of reduced productivity. However, peer-reviewed research into shorter work weeks shows that workers can be just as productive in 30 hours as they can in 40, particularly since they waste less time (on non-essential emails, chatting to colleagues, having another unscheduled coffee break) and are better rested. Shorter work weeks lower the number of sick days taken, and employees don’t use the company’s utilities on their extra day off, saving their employer some money.
The world’s biggest trial of the four-day work week was in Iceland between the years 2015-2019. In that time, the country had an actual four-day work week where workers were paid the same amount for shorter hours. By the end of the trial, over 2,500 workers — more than 1% of Iceland’s entire working population — had moved from a 40-hour to a 35- or 36-hour working week. According to the study, productivity either remained the same or was found to have improved in the majority of workplaces across the country. The four-day work week was a resounding success.
In addition to all of this, there are various undeniable environmental benefits of a four-day work week. According to a 2012 study, our carbon footprint would be lowered by 14.6 percent if we spent 10% less time telecommuting to work, and by 36.6 percent if we reduced our working hours by 25%, or a day and a quarter every week. Also, shorter work time was found to function as a compensation for slower growth in consumption, which adds another potential linkage between hours and environmental impact.
Another study indicated that if full-time workers in the United States (who, according to a Gallup report from 2014 estimated works 47 hours a week on average) worked the same hours as those in Europe (who work significantly less, roughly 25% less), they would consume about 20% less energy. This reduction is predicted to come mostly from a reduction in commuting time and the attendant pollution from vehicles.
More than history, research and trials, what has made the idea of a four-day workweek closer to actualisation is the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing for nearly two years now. The pandemic has led many companies to think outside of the box in attempting to safeguard their employees’ mental health against burnout from long workdays combined with intensified work-life juggles. All the usual questions have now been answered so overwhelmingly by the fact that as one global society, we collectively realised at some point during this pandemic that we could work from home. It is this unique state of affairs that has presented this opportunity of the actualisation of the four-day work week.
A growing number of businesses are currently either implementing or planning to implement a four-day workweek for its employees. The benefits to both the company and its workers are crystal clearer. With an extra “weekend” day to manage personal matters outside the office, plus fewer days to contend with work-related headaches, the flexibility of working four days instead of five can help quell anxiety. Employees can also use their time to take up hobbies, spend time with loved ones, return to school for extra studies, and much more. All this in turn positively impacts the workers’ productivity in more ways than one. It also has the added benefit of lowering operating costs for that month. Everyone seems to win, and I imagine you know how rare that is.
The single biggest obstacle I see here lies in the mass adoption of this new work system and I think the reason for this is somewhat socio-psychological. It is rooted in the belief still widely held by many of us that we need to work to our limits in order to be seen as being productive. Many employers are still of the view that their employees are supposed to work as much as possible because idleness, rest and leisure are antithetical to the development of the society.
Even before the pandemic, there were a few companies choosing to work shorter weeks. In Japan, Microsoft gave it a try in the later part of 2019 and found that doing so increased productivity, reduced stress, and lessened employee burnout. What would happen if your company decided to run fewer days per week? Would you discover the same benefits as other companies? Very likely.
There might be no “one size fits all” solution to helping companies and their workers recover or thrive through the global pandemic. But a four-day work week might be an incredibly great place to start.
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Cover image by Vlada Karpovich.