How to Make a Four-Day Workweek Sustainable Reducing worker hours can go very well or very badly. Execution matters.

 A four-day workweek sounds great in theory. But what would it take to actually make the practice sustainable?

Fewer Hours, Same Workload?

The idea of a four-day workweek sounds enticing: Work efficiently over a shorter period of time and then reap the benefits of three-day weekends. In the process, workers could find balance and flourish in their personal life. Some employers are game for it too, as they seek to improve employee wellness and retention. But execution matters. Best-case scenario: Shorter workweeks boost productivity and reduce burnout. Worst-case scenario: Workers who are already scrambling to get all their work done face unsustainable pressure to get it done even faster.

Companies and governments around the world have been flirting in recent years with the idea of reducing worker hours while maintaining pay, especially in white-collar industries with standard 40-hour workweeks (of course, many people in those industries end up working more than that). A nonprofit advocacy organization called 4 Day Week Global, which conducts trials with academics and promotes shorter workweeks, released new findings from a yearlong research period with companies that volunteered to participate. After six months of aiming to work 32 hours a week, participants reported overall boosts in well-being and job satisfaction, which remained higher than baseline levels another six months later. Companies and workers included in the report rated the trials positively, and most said they would like to continue four-day workweeks. (Crucially, employees were paid the same amount as they were when working longer hours.) The report notes that participating companies were not “required to institute a particular type of 4-day week.”

Recent reports from 4 Day Week Global raise interesting questions, Nick Bloom, a Stanford economist who studies work, told me in an email. However, skeptics of the benefits of shorter weeks are waiting to see more robust independent research. Now Bloom is gathering his own survey data on four-day weeks.

Bloom noted that as far back as 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that workers could move to a 15-hour week. At that time, many Americans were working 50 hours a week. During the Great Depression, 40-hour weeks became the norm, and they were eventually enshrined into law in 1940. Later, union leaders—and President Richard Nixon—predicted even shorter weeks. But in the past few decades, various factors including Americans’ worship of work and simple inertia have led most companies to stick to standard 40-hour schedules.

A four-day workweek can lead to improvements only if it’s implemented properly. For those workers required to shoulder an unmanageable workload, to begin with, trying to complete work in fewer hours could lead to burnout. How workers spend their off-hours matters too. If an employee spends Friday relaxing at the park or enjoying time with family, it’s easy to see how they would come back refreshed and rejuvenated on Monday. But if a worker spends Friday answering emails from clients who are not on a reduced schedule, that may not be the case.

For a four-day week to be beneficial, employees need to know that their time off is really their own, Emma Russell, an associate professor in occupational and organizational psychology at the University of Sussex, in England, and the director of agiLab, told me in an email. Workers facing economic precarity may also use the extra time for another job, Russell noted—and if they are exhausted from moonlighting, they may not reap the wellness rewards of reduced hours in their primary job. It may not be universally helpful for companies to implement the one-size-fits-all solution of a reduced schedule, because workers have varied responsibilities and needs, she added.

Dale Whelehan, the CEO of 4 Day Week Global, acknowledges that shorter weeks are not necessarily a panacea. Companies need to buy into the idea of rethinking workloads too. “It’s much more than a reduction of working time. It’s completely reprioritizing how you work, why you work, and what way you work,” he told me. Whehelan argues that many people are already effectively doing four days of work hidden under five workdays’ worth of hours because they are not working as efficiently as they could be. To him, the four-day workweek is a way for companies to work smarter rather than assuming that the arbitrary norm of a five-day week is best.

That message may go over well with executives who are eager to mix things up and reimagine their organization. But it may feel insulting to companies that are already doing all they can to be efficient. As Bloom put it in his email, “I doubt we could just work 20% less time and produce the same, otherwise, we would have done this already.”

“Nobody likes work,” he added with a smiley-face emoji.

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