Sandra Fisher
The Work-Life Issue

Is a Four-Day Workweek the Answer?

Dolly Parton was onto something when she lamented that working nine to five was “enough to drive you crazy if you let it.” Studies show that long work hours are linked to increased rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health conditions, as well as insomnia and unhealthy habits like excessive drinking.

As a result, more and more labor organizations are calling for shorter workweeks to give workers better work-life balance and improve their mental health. That’s why 30 businesses across the United States switched to a four-day workweek in February that they will commit to for at least six months. The move was coordinated by 4 Day Week Global, a not-for-profit advocacy group trying to make a four-day workweek the new standard.

The Origins of the Four-Day Workweek

This isn’t the first time Americans have sounded the call for shorter workweeks. In fact, the four-day, 32-hour workweek that’s made headlines recently isn’t even new. It very nearly became the standard about 90 years ago.

In 1933, Senate passed a bill that would reduce the standard workweek to just 30 hours. Supporters of the bill included then-President Roosevelt and the majority of Americans who voted for him in part because of his promise to shorten the workweek.

Despite such widespread, bipartisan support, the bill stalled in the House as business leaders across the country rallied to oppose it. Instead, President Roosevelt leveraged the threat of the 30-hour workweek to pressure those cantankerous business leaders into agreeing to other labor reforms like banning child labor and establishing the first federal minimum wage—and compromising on work hours by agreeing to the 40-hour workweek we know today.

Although a compromise, it was a major step in the right direction for workers who were regularly clocking 70+ hour workweeks at the time, in jobs that consisted of either backbreaking labor or serious health hazards—or both.

The Renewed Call for a Shorter Workweek

Today, as much as 83% of the workforce would prefer a four-day workweek, according to a survey of 4,000 American workers done by GoodHire. There is even a fresh bill in the house that would establish a four-day, 32-hour workweek as the new definition of a full-time schedule.

Introduced by Representative Mark Takano—with support from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Cori Bush—the bill is motivated by the growing number of studies showing the widespread benefits of a shorter workweek.

Shorter Workweeks Are Better for Employee Mental Health

The biggest takeaway from those pilot studies on the new schedule is the dramatic (and sustained) improvements in mental health and overall well-being that workers experience after switching to a four-day schedule.

In one of the largest pilot studies to date, over 2,500 workers across Iceland switched to a 35-36-hour, four-day schedule (for the same amount of pay as their original 40-hour week) over four years spanning 2015 to 2019. In that time, workers overwhelmingly reported less stress, fewer instances of burnout, and improved mental and physical health. They also felt more positive overall, were happier, and were more energized at work.

Many reported exercising more, spending more time with friends and family, and enjoying their hobbies—all of which contributed to the overall increase in happiness and energy that translated to a less stressful workday.

Those benefits seem to have everything to do with adding that weekday to their weekend. “People may find that they can get errands or housework done on that fifth day, leaving their weekends free,” says Dr. Sandra Fisher, a senior research fellow at Münster University’s School of Business in Germany. “They may have longer weekends that allow them to pursue interests that improve overall life satisfaction.”

In short, it’s about work-life balance. With four days of work and three days off, workers have a more even balance of time during the week to take care of their personal needs and goals—and less work also means less fatigue and exhaustion during that free time.

Healthier Employees Are Good for Employers, Too

The same Iceland study mentioned earlier saw zero decline in productivity from those happier, healthier workers over the same time period—even though they were actually working fewer hours. In some cases, productivity even increased after hours were cut.

At one call center in Iceland, for example, workers on the shorter schedule answered 93% of calls, which was actually higher than the 85% average for a "control" workplace where employees stayed on the standard 40-hour schedule.

“The assumption that fewer hours equal less total production may be less true than we think,” says Dr. Christopher Barnes, a professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Management and Organization, Foster School of Business.

In addition to getting the same or more work done each week despite working fewer hours, a shorter workweek also helped employers in other ways. Namely, Dr. Fisher notes that the schedule can reduce absenteeism, “as people are less motivated to ‘call in sick’ when they have that extra day to get things done.”

Dr. Christopher Barnes, Professor of Organizational Behavior

The assumption that fewer hours equal less total production may be less true than we think.

— Dr. Christopher Barnes, Professor of Organizational Behavior

According to the World Health Organization, an estimated $1 trillion is lost worldwide every year to lost productivity linked to depression and anxiety. That loss comes from workers calling out sick, struggling to complete work, or making mistakes because they’re too tired or stressed.

The reality is that workers are humans, not machines. “Proponents of the four-day, 32-hour week argue that most humans can only be productive for a limited period of time,” Dr. Fisher explains. “[So] extra time at work is spent in less productive activities such as surfing the internet […] or chatting with coworkers.”

Demanding 40 hours of an employee’s week doesn’t necessarily mean an employer is getting 40 hours of work. Instead, they may be adding to their employees’ stress levels, which can end up causing more productivity loss than any potential loss from letting them work less.

Opting for a shorter week gives employers as much or more work as they thought they were getting from a standard nine-to-five schedule while also making the people doing that work happier and more energized. It’s a win-win.

Benefits Hinge on How the Schedule Is Implemented

Those widespread benefits are far from guaranteed. Variations in how companies choose to implement the schedule could lead to uneven benefits at best and increased stress for employees at worst.

For example, some companies implement it by lengthening those four days to 10-12 hours instead of the standard eight. “The extended work time on those four days can create conflicts with family life,” Dr. Fisher explains. “It can also create difficulties in being productive for a full 10 hours in a single day.”

“Many people will end up sacrificing some sleep in order to squeeze in two extra hours of work on those four workdays,” Dr. Barnes cautions. Ultimately, the stress of now needing to work 10+ hour days, four days a week, could leave them even more mentally exhausted than they are on the current schedule.

When Elephant Ventures launched its four-day workweek experiment in 2020, for example, it cut Friday from the workweek but made Monday through Thursday into 10-hour days. Employees enjoyed the three-day weekends but reported feeling even more burnt out by the end of the workweek than they did before.

Dr. Sandra Fisher, senior research fellow, Münster University, Germany

The extended work time on those four days can create conflicts with family life. It can also create difficulties in being productive for a full 10 hours in a single day.

— Dr. Sandra Fisher, senior research fellow, Münster University, Germany

Not only were the longer workdays more draining, but the pressure employees felt to maximize the productivity of each hour was higher. Employees took shorter breaks, spent less time chatting with coworkers, and generally avoided downtime and rest.

While managers might see shorter breaks and decreased chatting among coworkers as a boon to productivity, it hurts the company in the long run. “We need this downtime and casual interaction with others at work to maintain our connections,” Dr. Fisher points out.

Those little breaks sprinkled throughout the day make it possible to settle in focus during the hours that they are productive.

Even with these problems, the staff at Elephant Ventures eventually voted to keep the new schedule, albeit with some wiggle room to work remotely or modify the schedule to the individual’s needs—meaning they could clock out to run errands and make up the time later, including on Fridays if they so choose.

There Is No One-Size-Fits-All Solution

What the Elephant Ventures case and others with uneven results show are that the four-day week is not a universal fix when it comes to the problem of work-related stress and productivity loss.

For some workers, the option to do remote work might be a more meaningful alternative than a permanent three-day weekend. For others, the flexibility to set their own hours would have a bigger impact.

“You can work for an hour, then take an hour to take your child to the dentist, and then jump right back into work,” Dr. Fisher notes.

But again, not every worker will like the idea of blending work and home responsibilities throughout the day.

“That kind of flexibility feels more like chaos for some people, introducing more stress into their lives,” Dr. Fisher adds. “They may prefer to keep work and home more separate, such that they would rather work longer hours over four days, but then have that fifth day to focus on responsibilities at home.”

This idea that different workers will want different schedules makes sense when you consider the research showing that it may not necessarily be the number of hours worked but the level of preoccupation and frustration associated with that work that causes most of the mental health problems seen.

Dr. Fisher

They may prefer to keep work and home more separate, such that they would rather work longer hours over four days, but then have that fifth day to focus on responsibilities at home.

— Dr. Fisher

If you cut your hours but then spend your free time stressing about the work you have to do, your shorter workweek isn’t doing you much good.

That same study also found that temporary stress on the job is fine. In more seasonal work or jobs that fluctuate between peaks and lulls, for example, workers can generally handle the temporary spike in stress levels without developing chronic mental health problems.

In fact, that structure might even be preferred by those who’d rather just cram most of their work into a couple of intense 14-16 hour days per week or a few months of 60+ hour weeks per year and leave the rest of their time free and clear.

For others, that inconsistency in schedule could end up being more stressful than just settling into a steady routine of 30-35 hour weeks year-round.

“Ideally, a flexible work arrangement could allow employees to choose how many days to work, which would include four-day workweeks for many who choose that option,” Dr. Barnes says.

Dr. Barnes

Ideally, a flexible work arrangement could allow employees to choose how many days to work, which would include four-day workweeks for many who choose that option.

— Dr. Barnes

In the end, the answer seems to be leaving the messy details to individual workers to decide for themselves how best to balance their work and life responsibilities. Doing that means shifting managers’ expectations away from the number of hours clocked and toward concrete outcomes and metrics of work done.

9 Sources
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