How a shorter workweek makes healthier, happier people

Labour by Gregory Beatty

Last summer, several countries including Britain, the U.S. and Ireland took the four-day workweek for a test drive. Employers and employees in a wide variety of industries experimented with the schedule in trials conducted by credited researchers (the British study was done by 4 Day Week Global in partnership with Cambridge University, Oxford University and Boston College), and the results are starting to come in.

Now, before any conservatives out there blow a gasket, some countries (Germany, Iceland, Belgium and Denmark among them) already have workweeks in the 33-hour range (or at least give employees that option). And numerous countries, including Australia, Scotland, South Africa, Japan and Spain, are considering the move. None of this, therefore, is “unrealistic” or wildly radical.

The model most are testing is 100-80-100: 100 per cent pay for 80 per cent of the time in exchange for 100 per cent commitment to maintain productivity. The biggest trial was in the UK, where 3,300 employees from 70 companies participated over six months.

Its results are due soon, but the joint U.S.-Ireland study has reported and the results were impressive, says Erica Carleton.

“One of the main things that stood out for me was that productivity was as good if not better than before. Then, obviously, the stats around reduced stress, fatigue and burnout — all those metrics around physical and mental health — while not surprising, were really good to see as well,” says Carleton, who is an associate Business Administration professor at University of Regina, and an RBC Women in Leadership Research Scholar.

The U.S.-Irish trial involved 33 companies and 903 workers. Once the trial ended, none of the 27 companies that responded to the follow-up survey said they planned to return to the old five-day model. Of the 495 employees who responded, 97 per cent said they wanted to continue with a four-day week.

While high employee buy-in is probably no surprise, the degree of corporate support perhaps is. But respondents rated their experience with employee productivity and performance as nine out of 10.

They also enjoyed an average 38 per cent boost in revenue compared to the same period in 2021.

“The pilot showed really great results for companies,” says Carleton. “For me, it shows the quality of employees that companies can attract by doing this. It was noted that people were flocking to try to get jobs at these companies.

“It’s something employees want, so you have to assume you are potentially getting top-tier employees,” she says.

Cynics might be tempted to dismiss the results as a blip caused by employees who recognized a good deal, and were on their best behaviour. Make the four-day workweek permanent, though, and their commitment would inevitably wane.

Carleton concedes that might be a concern but she thinks the studies were large enough, and lasted long enough, that they provided a fair test of worker willingness to honour their end of the 100-80-100 bargain. In return, survey results show, employers got better-rested, more fulfilled employees who, when they were at work, devoted 100 per cent of their time and talent to the job.

Right now, despite most employees best intentions, that simply isn’t possible.

Stop The Bleeding

One problem that’s arisen in recent years as we’ve shifted to more of a post-industrial service/knowledge-based economy is a bleed between work and home life.

“A big piece of the four-day workweek debate is work-family or work-home conflict. It’s not as easy now when we are out of the office to turn off from work because we get notifications on our phone,” says Carleton.

“Maybe you aren’t expected to reply immediately — at least, if you’re in a positive workplace that respects your home time. But you see it, you think about it, you go to bed ruminating about it — whatever. Or maybe you do deal with it. It does interfere with your home life.”

The work-life bleed was there before COVID, but it really became evident during the pandemic, says Carleton.

“Because of technology, work is definitely changing, and it’s really about the boundaries that people can place around their work and home lives so they don’t interfere as much,” says Carleton.

“The more interference there is, the more stress we have,” she says. “With a four-day workweek, having more time away from work to unwind and recover is potentially really helpful.”

Research shows that employees typically use the extra day for what’s described as “life administration”. Life administration includes making and attending medical and dental appointments (or doing the same for their children), caring for elderly parents, and getting groceries and household essentials. Then on the weekend, employees have time to actually rest and recuperate.

That’s especially true for women, who continue to work what researchers call a “second shift” by handling most of the childcare and other domestic duties.

“Part of the research I do is around gender and work,” says Carleton. “For women, it’s not just the four-day workweek, which would be very helpful, but just more flexible working arrangements in general. If you can be done work in time to pick up your children from school, then that is a lot easier than having to figure out childcare.”

That sentiment is backed up by a recent Abacus poll for The Honest Talk podcast, where 72 per cent of female respondents said work/home flexibility was “extremely” or “quite important” in a job.

Bigger Benefits

While employers and employees are the main participants in these trials, they’re not the only potential beneficiaries. Society, at both a macro and micro level, also stands to benefit, says Carleton.

She points to health care as one obvious example.

“For adults, work is one of the most stressful things we do in our life. There is a negative correlation between work stress and health, so as you get more work stress your health declines. That’s shown in Statistics Canada data,” she says.

Another research interest of Carleton is preventative health behaviour. Right now, as has been well publicized in media reports, our healthcare system is frayed and overburdened.

“The research I do looks at how we can influence the negative relationship between work stress and health,” she says. “If you can reduce work stress through a four-day workweek, regardless of other behaviours, that is a good place to start.”

Less work stress means less demand on the healthcare system. Employers would get a ‘W’ there too through reduced sick leave and absence costs, and probably fewer workplace injuries.

With a bit of extra time in their week, people might be more inclined to volunteer in the community, or just spend more time with family and friends. So going back to society again, that would surely yield savings in areas such as social services and criminal justice.

Despite the positive trial results, Carleton says the four-day workweek is far from a slam dunk — especially in North America, where capitalist fervour and a semi-sacred “Protestant work ethic” run deep.

“I do have the broader concern where people look at the results and say ‘Oh, this is great. It’s beneficial. But I’m not going to do it. It doesn’t work for my business,’ so it just dies after these wonderful results,” says Carleton.

If a four-day workweek is going to become more common, governments and labour unions probably have a role to play, says Carleton.

But she thinks the ultimate test will be the marketplace.

“If there are different industries and employers that are really open to the four-day workweek, people will flock to them. Those employers and industries will get top-tier talent. I don’t know that there is an easy sell, or easy solution, in how we make this happen. But these large studies are a really good way to show that the concept is valid,” says Carleton.

“We haven’t rethought or tried to change work in a really long time,” she says. “We’ve been doing the same thing for many decades, so I do think it’s time we did this.

“It’s just a matter of changing the overarching social norms around work, but that’s not an easy task.” ■