In recent years interest in the four-day workweek has been everywhere. National and local governments from Spain to Scotland, Denmark to South Korea, have announced four-day workweek trials, alongside multiple businesses including Shopify, Kickstarter, Unilever and Buffer.
So what is the four-day workweek, and what potential does it really hold?
What is a four-day workweek?
A four-day workweek isn’t a compressed schedule. A compressed schedule attempts to fit five days of work, generally 40 hours, into fewer days, often requiring people to work 9-10 hours a day. Not only is this a huge workload, but it can also harm health and productivity, leading to burnout.
The four-day workweek that most people refer to is actually one in which the number of hours in the working week is reduced. Staff are still seen as full-time employees, with salary, pensions, annual leave and other benefits remaining the same.
There are two main kinds of four-day workweeks that can be adopted. One is a sweeping policy for an entire company, where everything is completely closed for three days. The other is flexible and worker-based; employees can choose which four days of the week to work, with all normal working days usually covered by someone.
The changing nature of work
This may seem like an impossible idea, but it’s not as radical as one might think. In fact, the five-day, 40-hour workweek hasn’t been around for that long itself.
In the 19th century, most labour was focused in factories: an 1890 estimate from the United States government stated that a full-time employee within a manufacturing plant worked an average of 100 hours a week. By the mid-20th century, however, this had reduced to 40 hours. Unions pushed for a shorter workday with the popular slogan ‘eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will’ at a time when the standard workweek was six days. These changes, with reduced hours over five days, were achieved after workers fought for them and won.
As these shifts occurred, it was widely believed that increased leisure time was a sign of progress, and many believed the workweek would continue to shrink. In 1930 British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that within a century people would work as few as 15 hours per week. Richard Nixon, when vice president, also believed a four-day workweek was inevitable.
However, while the nature of work has changed dramatically in recent decades, the 40-hour workweek remains the norm. Many argue that this way of working, which made sense in the 19th century, doesn’t suit the office-based form of work many people are now used to.
Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, has written that the current version of office work, defined by long hours and “always-on electronic chatter,” seems poorly suited to cognitive labor. This mode of working has been around for only a decade or two, and we have found better ways to work before; it would be “arrogant and ahistoric,” he says, to assume that the current approach is best.
Benefits of a four-day workweek
Health and wellbeing
Working fewer hours has been found to create better work-life balances for employees, who then report feeling healthier and happier. Shorter hours enable people to get more rest, spend more time with loved ones, and find space to pursue hobbies and passions. It also gives them the time to complete personal tasks outside of work and makes coordinating care needs much easier.
A four-day workweek can also reduce workplace issues such as burnout and boredom. A 2017 study found that reducing working hours by 25% improved sleep and reduced stress, while a decade-long Swedish study published in 2021 found that reduced working hours resulted in less stress, exhaustion and negative emotion. A separate Swedish study from 2015- 2017 also found that nurses who worked 35 hours a week instead of 40 took fewer sick days and reported better health and wellbeing, and several workers told the Atlantic that transitioning to a four-day week cured them of the ‘Sunday scaries’, when people feel dread about returning to work as the weekend ends.
Synergy Vision, a London-based medical and health care communications company, introduced a four-day week in late 2018. After six months, in a company-wide survey, 51 percent of employees said they were “very happy” at work (up from 12 percent) and 88 percent said they had enough time for personal tasks (up from 54 percent). Incredibly, 79 percent said they had enough time to get all their work done — even though they were working one day less.
Studies have found clear links between working hours and carbon emissions. A shorter workweek means employees commute less, while large office buildings may only be in use for four days (depending on the work schedule of the company).
A trial conducted in Utah for government employees showed US$1.8m (£1.36m) was saved in energy costs, with a reduction of at least 6,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions from closing the large office building on Fridays for ten months. If commutes were also included, Utah estimated that it could save 12,000 metric tons of CO2, the equivalent of removing 2,300 cars off the road for one year.
Introducing a third weekend day would reduce carbon emissions in the U.S. by 45 million metric tons—more than the total emissions of Oregon and Vermont combined.
In the UK, a report published by the 4 Day Week Campaign shows that a four-day workweek could reduce the entire country’s carbon footprint by 21.3% per year, equivalent to taking 27 million cars off the road. The report also found that people are more likely to spend their non-work time engaged in less carbon-intensive activities, such as cooking from scratch rather than buying ‘convenience’ items, and walking or cycling rather than driving.
A 2019 study showed that workers are more productive when they’re happier, and shorter workweeks are a surefire way to make employees happier. Reducing working to four days has consistently been linked to more productivity, as people are less likely to be overworked or overtired.
A 2014 study from Stanford University suggested that productivity decreases after working 50 hours a week, while some experts suggest this is as low as 35 hours. Others argue people should only work six hours per day as it’s hard to maintain concentration in an office, with a 2015 study finding workers can spend up to 2.5 hours a day doing other, non-work tasks online. Instead, a shorter workweek helps people complete tasks efficiently; focus is on what needs to get done, rather than hours worked, and more time is free for leisure.
The Society for Human Resource Management reports that 60% of organisations with a four-day workweek report higher productivity and increased employee satisfaction. A 2015-2019 study in Iceland followed 2500+ government workers (around 1% of Iceland’s working population) who moved from 40-hour weeks to 35/36 hours with the same pay. The study found that productivity remained the same, or even improved. 86% of Iceland’s workforce have now moved to shorter hours for the same pay, or will gain the right to.
In 2019 Microsoft Japan tested a four-day workweek, which led to a 40% increase in productivity, and New Zealand company, Perpetual Guardian’s four-day workweek trials found employees maintained productivity, while stress decreased from 45% to 38%. Most recently, tech startup Bolt announced their adoption of the four-day workweek after a three-month trial. 94% of surveyed staff wanted to continue the work model, 84% said work-life balance had improved, and 86% said they were more efficient with their time.
Benefits for employers
Since the pandemic, many employees want more flexibility from their employers; The CIPD reported that the majority of people think flexible working is positive for their quality of life. For employers, offering a flexible working pattern and a three day weekend is a clear way to attract and retain talented people, while also treating them with respect and care.
Shorter workweeks also reduce employer costs, not just through savings from workplaces that are able to close buildings for an extra day (this was the case for Microsoft Japan’s trial, as electricity costs fell by 23%). If people quit, as is happening more and more in ‘the great resignation‘, companies have to pay to replace and train them. Better employee retention results in big savings.
In his book Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less—Here’s How, Pang writes about a nursing home near Roanoke, Virginia, that was struggling to hire and retain nursing assistants, who do important but unglamorous, often low-paid work. To improve retention, the facility tried giving them 40 hours of pay for 30 hours of work, which necessitated hiring more nursing assistants to compensate for the reduced hours. That came at a price, but the change also yielded substantial savings on recruitment expenses and overtime pay, such that the overall cost worked out to only about $20,000 a year. Plus, call-bell response times, residents’ infection rates, and the number of falls and skin tears all declined.
Last year, Diamondback Covers, a Pennsylvania-based manufacturer of metal truck-bed covers, shaved five hours off its factory team’s 40-hour week, but didn’t decrease pay, as it hired more workers to meet rising demand during the pandemic. The company expected that the 12.5 percent drop in working hours would lead to a rise of similar magnitude in the labor costs for each cover it made. But the cost increase was only 3 percent, due to increased efficiency.
Are there any disadvantages?
While the Utah study saw incredible environmental results, customers complained that they were unable to access government services with offices closed on a Friday. The four-day workweek doesn’t suit every sector, with other industries (eg. healthcare) requiring a 24/7 presence.
This doesn’t mean that a four-day workweek is impossible, however, it may just mean a flexible approach is key. When workers are unionised and able to communicate with employers solutions could still be found, as seen by the TUC (which represents over 5.5 million working people in 48 member unions) calling for a four-day workweek.
The gig economy
If a four-day workweek becomes increasingly popular, it’s vital that gig economy workers aren’t left behind. Four-day workweeks could increase existing inequalities between office workers and those who are on zero-hours contracts or paid according to different measurements.
However, this isn’t an argument that should be used to dismiss the four-day workweek. Rather, it should be something that motivates all of us to fight for better rights, wages and benefits for gig workers.
What would a four-day future look like?
It’s important to remember that none of these benefits have been achieved by companies randomly shutting things down for an extra day. Work has to be intentionally redesigned in collaboration with workers, which often includes other measures such as reducing unnecessary/overly-long meetings and using technology well. Reduced hours also hold the potential for a smaller number of jobs being shared among more people; reducing overall unemployment, helping more people achieve balance, and transitioning to a fairer work culture and economy.
This is the best argument for the four-day week: For workers, it rocks. Anecdotally, it allows people to be less stressed, less strapped for time, more physically and mentally healthy, and more, as Hunnicutt, the historian, put it, “fully human.” It cannot, on its own, give everyone enough time and money, or fix miserable jobs. But it leads to a substantial improvement in quality of life.
Ultimately, the power of the four-day workweek is how it can encourage everyone to approach ideas of work and time in healthier, more mindful ways. Overwork shouldn’t be seen as either a badge of honour or a necessary evil, because work should not be seen as the most important part of our lives. People should not be valued based on their labour, and workplaces have the potential to be real places of passion, creativity, and sustainable balance.