Is the Four-Day Workweek the Silver Bullet for Burnout?
Could the four-day workweek be the silver bullet for combating burnout?
The whole concept of paying someone the same amount of money for working fewer hours, or working a non-traditional schedule that might see more hours per day but fewer days per week, is an idea that more and more companies, in an increasing number of countries, are starting to investigate. And while there are many potential benefits from adopting this kind of work schedule, a boost to overall wellness is certainly at the top of the list given the increase in employee burnout seen during the pandemic.
Increased wellness was arguably the strongest finding in arguably the biggest experiment with shortened workweeks.
Between 2015 and 2019, Iceland engaged in two large-scale pilot projects that saw about 2,500 workers engage in workweeks of between 35 and 36 hours with no decrease in pay. Studies on the pilot projects showed that productivity and customer service improved, and wellbeing – defined by metrics such as levels of stress, burnout and work-life balance – improved dramatically.
The pilot projects were so successful that currently, more than 80 percent of Icelandic workers enjoy a shortened workweek. The Icelandic experience, and other bold experiments in other countries, are convincing more and more employers to at least dip their toes in the four-day workweek pond.
Belgium, on the other hand, is taking a somewhat different approach. In February 2022, the Belgian government announced a policy that would allow employees to work four 10-hour days to enjoy a three-day weekend. Workers can also choose to work more hours during any one week, and fewer the week after. Employers and unions must agree on the new work schedule.
Another pilot project sponsored by 4 Day Week Global, a consulting and advocacy organization that is promoting shortened workweeks, involves 50 companies and about 2,000 employees who are now working four days without any reduction in pay. Although the impacts of the pilot projects are still being gathered, individual case studies show dramatic improvements in productivity and wellness.
The companies involved in 4 Day Week are not the only companies embracing this innovation. Himalayas, a remote-work job board for tech workers, has actually created an app that tracks companies with reduced workweeks. At last count, Himalayas had documented 98 companies with four-day workweeks, including 71 that have adopted the schedule permanently and 24 companies involved in trials.
After decades of discussion and debate, could it be that the four-day workweek is an idea whose time has finally come?
The pandemic has lengthened the workweek, not shortened it
Prior to the pandemic, many working people had long coveted the opportunity to work more from home, on a non-traditional schedule. However, a growing impetus on productivity and globalization stalled further progress.
Rather than shorter work weeks, the world seemed to be trying to wring more hours out of working people, often to their detriment. In 2019, the World Health Organization classified work-related “burnout” as a distinct health syndrome and called on employers to take steps to ease the burden they were putting on employees. The International Labour Organization, a WHO agency, estimated that excessively long working hours contributed to 2.8 million deaths – mostly due to heart disease and stroke – in 2016.
In the spring of 2020, just as the global pandemic was taking hold, a Gallup survey found that only five percent of American workers enjoyed a four-day workweek; 84 percent worked five days and 11 percent spread their work over six days.
And then came COVID-19, a public health threat so grave that it required us to board up the office and unleash the power of a VPN internet connection.
And then came the moment when everyone realized that the reality of remote work was much different than the reality. A 2021 survey by the Adecco Group of nearly 15,000 workers found that 43 percent were and would likely continue to work more than 40 hours a week to meet employer expectations. Not surprisingly, two-thirds of respondents (63 percent) suffered from burnout.
How will I know if my company is a good fit for a reduced workweek?
The impact of a four-day workweek will be different for companies depending on industry and how they manage their workforces. Companies that predominantly rely on salaried employees face different challenges than, say, companies in industries that employ mostly hourly wage earners. It is largely because of the different variations on a reduced-hour workweek, and different workforce structures, that it may be difficult to estimate the precise impact on profitability.
However, when you look at the broad array of companies embracing the ideas of a reduced workweek, you can see a clear pattern: increases in productivity and boosts to workplace wellness are winning over more and more companies. And as the sheer number of organizations using a reduced workweek grows, so does the research around its net positive benefits. In a recent U.K. study, two-thirds of companies utilizing a four-day workweek said it had helped them attract talent.
In the United Kingdom, for example, companies employing 32-35 hour workweeks run the gamut from technology and software development, to government offices, financial services and even the hospitality industry.
The Landmark Hotel in London, for example, became the first major hotel in the U.K. to institute a reduced workweek. The idea was the brainchild of Executive Chef Gary Klaner, who felt that a reduced workweek and expanded workforce in the hotel’s multiple kitchens and bars could ease employee burnout, increase productivity and improve overall customer service. The plan involves hiring additional staff to cover the hotel’s seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day schedule, and increased pay for chefs. “It shows The Landmark London’s serious investment in our employees and the commitment to providing a healthy work-life balance for them,” Klaner said in a news report.
Remember, longer hours do not necessarily translate into greater productivity, but flexibility can
Surveys of professional workers have shown that nearly two-thirds admit to wasting time – some up to five hours per week – at work, often by indulging in personal tasks or visiting their favorite social media platform.
The four-day workweek may indeed be an idea worth examining. Particularly if a modified work schedule not only alleviates burnout, but also helps you attract new talent in a market where there is a huge appetite for flexibility in where and when people work.
But like all great workforce transformations, the greatest benefits are going to accrue to the organizations that view the four-day workweek issue as an opportunity to help their employees navigate an increasingly complex life, both at work and at home.