Shorter workweeks can boost health without hurting five-day productivity

Labour Day | Gregory Beatty | Aug. 25, 2022

The four-day workweek is a familiar concept. Although it’s probably a bit of a misnomer since it typically means someone works four 10-hour shifts per week instead of the usual five eight-hour shifts. There’s no net reduction in hours worked, just more hours crammed into one less day.

A true four-day workweek, in contrast, would see an actual reduction in hours worked from 40 to 32 with — and here’s the kicker — no reduction in pay!

Sound like a Marxist pipe dream? Maybe. But when Iceland conducted a two-stage trial from 2015–2019, researchers found no evidence of a productivity drop. That comes with two caveats. First, the workers were all in the public sector. Second, their work hours were only reduced to 35 or 36. But the study was evidently persuasive: three years on 86 per cent of Icelandic employees either work shorter weeks or have the option to do so.

Maybe the “dream” isn’t as far-fetched as some might think.

Labour stats from the [trigger warning for Far Right conservatives] World Economic Forum show the average German workweek is already just 34.2 hours, and the UK is currently halfway through a six-month trial where 3,300 workers from 70 companies representing industries from hospitality and education to financial services and banking are on a 100/80/100 model: 100 per cent of pay for 80 per cent of the time, with a 100 per cent commitment to maintain productivity.

The study is by 4 Day Week Global in partnership with Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College researchers. Other trials are starting soon in Spain and Scotland. Japan is also experimenting with a four-day week as the government, spooked by a low birthrate and rapidly aging population, seeks to promote a better work/life balance for harried workers so they can better handle family responsibilities.

While the idea of a four-day workweek predates Covid, Erica Carleton says the pandemic has added an extra dimension to the debate. Carleton is an associate professor in Business Administration at University of Regina, and an RBC Women in Leadership Research scholar.

“The pandemic caused many industries to switch to at-home or online work,” says Carleton. “That was over a very short period, and demonstrated that it could be done. And what seems to be happening now is that people are resisting the push to go back into work.

“The outcome seems to be that people want more flexibility in how they get their work done,” she says.

Bend Or Break

The UK trial is billed as the biggest of its kind. What makes it especially unique is the range of businesses and job categories it covers.

That’s a question Carleton thinks about a lot, she says.

“A four-day workweek may not work super well in every industry,” she says. “When you think of healthcare, or more 24-hour kind of jobs where it’s not your basic nine to five. But I do think even within those organizations there are ways to maybe be more flexible. And it’s up to organizations in different industries to figure out what works best for them.”

That’s true for employees participating in the trials too — at least, it hopefully will be. Some may be more office orientated and enjoy workplace social interaction. Others, depending on their life circumstances at the time (raising young children, caring for elderly relatives, dealing with an illness) might prefer a different arrangement.

“Flexibility gives the employee more autonomy or control over their life,” says Carleton. “That’s good for their well-being and it’s good for their productivity. The more control people have, the better they feel.”

Labour markets are tight right now. And workers, who have seen little benefit from massive productivity gains in the last few decades (tl;dr: soaring profits/stagnant wages) are obviously restless.

Smart employers will take note of the growing interest in flexible work, says Carleton.

“I do think that would give a leg up to an organization when it comes to attracting employees. And I think that’s something workers will be thinking about and wanting when they look for jobs.”

To some observers, a four-day workweek might seem like a one-sided win for labour. But Carleton says employers will benefit, too.

“Things like a four-day workweek, flexible work schedules and working from home don’t tend to change productivity,” says Carleton. “If anything, they can aid organizations, as they are really good for peoples’ health and well-being.

“Time away from work is recovery time, and research shows there’s a strong relationship between workplace stress and overall health,” she adds. “The worse stress you have, the worse your health is.”

Healthy people translate into healthy employees. That saves on sick time and other employment expenses, plus likely leads to less job turnover. The primary benefit for employers there is knowledgeable and experienced staff, but it should also reduce the cost (and hassle) of hiring and training new employees when staff leave.

Trickledown Effects

As part of the upcoming Scottish trial, the government is compensating participating companies with a €11.8 million fund for adjustment costs and other expenses. Other trials don’t have a government subsidy, so it’s not like one is necessary.

It might not even be a subsidy, in the big picture. Just as businesses are expected to reap benefits from a four-day week, governments should, too.

Free up 20 per cent of the workweek for employees to engage more with family, friends and their community and practice self-care, and government expenditures in big-budget areas such as health, social services and criminal justice should drop, says Carleton.

“It would definitely be reflected in the company’s bottom line,” she says. “Whether that would have a trickledown effect to government expenditures, time will tell. But you would hope that the need for those types of services would drop.”

There may even be longer-term benefits tied to spreading out a dwindling amount of work as the role of AI and automation in our economy continues to expand. But after 40-plus years of neoliberal corporate domination — punctuated by the recent surge in gig work and the rise of the so-called precariat — it does seem that workers have reached a breaking point.

“Employees keep increasing their productivity with very little benefit to them,” says Carleton. “Their outcome typically involves reduced sleep and poorer health and wellness, without much in the way of increased wages and benefits.

“We’re also seeing high levels of burnout,” she says. “Problems like that could be remedied by changing the way we think about work.”

Organizations that refuse to engage with workers on this issue are likely to be left behind, says Carleton.

“Employees will not want to stay in organizations that don’t allow for flexible work arrangements when other organizations are doing that,” she says. “I think it would be advantageous for organizations to consider the idea and maybe do a trial to see how it might work.

“When we think about a shorter work week and more flexible work arrangements, it’s hard to think of negatives that would result from it,” says Carleton. “And if there are negatives, I think they are outweighed by positives.” ■